Trinidad and Tobago will enter phase two, on the road towards the full re-opening of its economy, on Thursday 21 May—some four days ahead of schedule—and it will be bigger than initially suggested.
Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley said today that the country’s promising health figures satisfied chief medical officer Dr Roshan Parasram and presented an opportunity for the country to speed up its economic reopening.
The Ministry of Health’s last confirmed case of Covid-19 came on 26 April while all 874 community tests returned negative. There is only one hospitalised patient at present.
“Based on the advice we’ve got and the analysis of the situation, we can make some further tentative adjustments,” said Rowley, at today’s press conference. “It is my intention today to advise (and the Office of the Attorney General and Ministry of Health will operationalise), we will move phase two to kick in a little earlier than May 24. So the 14th day will end on Wednesday to cover the [14 day] incubation period.”
Last Saturday, Rowley said phase two will comprise of the entire manufacturing sector and public sector construction, with private sector construction held back for phase three from 7 June. Today, he said that the government would restart the entire construction sector as well as the manufacturing sector and mechanic shops and laundries to boot.
“Phase two should begin on Thursday [and] what phase two means is […] we are prepared at this time—bearing in mind there will be conditions for how we behave—we will reopen the entire manufacturing sector,” said the prime minister, “and of course we will go further and open the construction sector across the board.
“[…] Also motor mechanics and tyre shops, laundry and dry cleaning. But of course those business places will have to follow the protocols of spacing and other directions that will come to you.”
Rowley urged business owners not to serve customers who do not wear masks.
“No mask, no service—covering if not everything the vast majority of things,” said Rowley. “[…] Let that be your contribution in this war against the virus; that is not too much to ask.”
The prime minister also announced a short-term fuel support grant of TT$2,000 for licensed maxi taxi and taxi owners. This decision, which will be operationalised by the Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Works and Transport, was taken even as drivers were warned to maintain 50 percent capacity occupancy of their vehicles, despite more people going out to work.
“Maxi taxi and taxi drivers will be asked to keep spacing and we will ask the police to enforce it more than ever,” said Rowley. “Because we are doing that, the minister of finance will make available a fuel support grant of TT$2,000—available immediately for the maxi [and taxi] operators to be able to conduct their business and transport the people.”
The cost to taxpayers for the fuel support grant was estimated at TT$6 million.
Rowley assured members of the personal services industry that he has heard their pleas. He did not allow their reopening just yet but offered a compromise. He said the Ministry of Social Development will be advised to ‘allow them priority in state support’.
“We would love to be able to open up personal services,” said the prime minister. “We know you’re hurting but circumstances are such that your area is the area that poses the greatest threat… Even though we understand what you’re going through, we can’t open for you because that can capsize the whole thing.”
Parasram explained that the Ministry of Health was prioritising properly licensed businesses, which makes it easier for health officials to share guidelines with stakeholders.
“We are looking at businesses that have an established quality control [when we decide which companies to open first],” said Parasram. “[That gives us greater] ability to mitigate against public health risks.”
Despite the generally upbeat news, Rowley stressed that the virus was very active globally and pointed to countries like South Korea, Singapore, China and Germany which have experienced or are now worried about a ‘second wave’ of the novel coronavirus. Patience, he said, remains a virtue in the case of reopening the economy.
“People of Trinidad and Tobago do not for one minute believe that this pandemic is over or that it is a hoax or just old talk,” he said.
Epidemiologist Dr Avery Hinds warned that health guidelines like physical spacing and masks are meant to minimise the risk of an asymptomatic person becoming a ‘super spreader’.
“One of the main concerns is although we have not seen any confirmed cases, we do not delude ourselves to believe there is no possible case anywhere in the population,” said Hinds. “[…] The possibility that [such persons] can wander into a crowded space or small business places without ventilation… Those concerns keep us up at night.
“As we increase the ability of people to interact, we do have the opportunity of a super spreader who can infect several people around them. So in a short space of time, you go from one case to 16…”
The prime minister urged citizens against moving about more than absolutely necessary.
“If you are not required to be out,” he said, “you are required to be in.”
Rowley took time to defend his government for offering an exemption to Movie Towne owner Derek Chin to fly home on 11 March, while the borders remain closed.
The prime minister explained that Chin applied for an exemption to return to Trinidad and was denied. However, 34-year-old cancer patient, Krissa Bissoon, was granted an exemption but had no way to get home from the Bahamas.
So, Chin was offered a deal. He would be allowed back if he would have his chartered plane stop in the Bahamas to pick up Bissoon. The businessman agreed and both persons are quarantined at the Cascadia Hotel in St Ann’s at present.
“I am sure from a humanitarian standpoint, all is well that ends very well,” said Rowley.
The prime minister was not prepared to speak on the swirling debate around his hosting of US sanctioned Venezuela vice-president Delcy Rodríguez and the subsequent sale of fuel to Aruba that was allegedly sold on to the Latin American nation.
“We spend enough time on that foolishness!” Rowley said. “Today I am not coming off this subject of phase two. Those who are fuelling that, every time we engage it they succeed…”