PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad – The Trinidad and Tobago government Saturday announced a phased re-opening of the country following the lockdown occasioned by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, but maintained that the borders would remain closed at least until June.
Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley said schools would remain closed until September and that Churches would also not be allowed to conduct services as had been the case prior to the pandemic.
He told a news conference, however that citizens must not put down their guards and continue to follow the measures earlier announced including social distancing, wearing of masks and in some respect continue the stay at home policy.
Health authorities said that the country has recorded 116 cases of the virus that had been first detected in China last December and blamed for nearly 300,000 deaths and more than three and a half million others infected worldwide. Trinidad and Tobago recorded eight deaths.
“We can’t let our guards down, do everything to preserve this situation and the only way we can do this…is to behave as if you are carrying the virus and observe all the hygiene practices,” Rowley said.
Prime Minister Rowley told reporters that under the first phase of the re-opening exercise, from May 12-23, food establishments, restaurants, street vendors among others will be allowed to open their businesses, but there would be no in-service dining and there would be no congregation of more than five people.
He said persons would be allowed to engage in outdoor exercises, but keeping in mind all the time the various measures that had been implemented to prevent the virus from spreading.
The government said that hardware stores, pharmacies and supermarkets would be allowed to operate within a 12 hour period and that the green light had been given to three companies involved in exporting products such as cement, would be allowed to operate.
“What we are doing is tentatively returning to some semblance of commerce,” Rowley said, adding that testing would continue to ensure that there is no increase in cases of the virus here.
“This is the new normal,” Rowley said, noting that if during the first phase, there are no “worrisome change” in the current situation, the second phase would begin from May 24 until June 6.
Rowley said during the second phase, the whole manufacturing sector would be opened, as well as public sector construction work with public transport allowing for carrying 50 per cent capacity.
Rowley said under the third phase, which begins on June 7, all public servants “will come out to work” even while the authorities may consider alternative days for employees to turn up for work.
He said that public transport capacity would be increased to 75 per cent and warned that progress going forward would be based on the island graduating back to a state of normalcy.
“The only response is to resort to what we have done and which we now has worked for us before,” Rowley said, adding “we don’t want to go into that direction”.
Prime Minister Rowley said he remains optimistic that beaches would open under the third phase, malls as well as cinemas.
On the issue of the borders, Rowley said he was pleased that his administration had taken the firm decision to close them “because if our virus load in the population is so low, then the only place, other than our own population growing it here by misbehaviour…would be an inflow of infected people from the outside.
“And to prevent that from happening we do not want to squander the good results of the sacrifices we have made so we will maintain our border closure until we are satisfied that the external environment is such that we can accept into Trinidad and Tobago, persons from heavily infected areas outside”
Rowley said in the meantime, arrangements would be made with the relevant authorities, for those here who would want to leave.
“Trinidad and Tobago is not a prison…it is quite possible we might be able to allow some kind of traffic where people can leave if there is a need for that service. If that need is not there then we will just continue to stay battle down until we are satisfied that bringing people in on schedule flights is a sensible thing to do.”
Rowley said that since the airports had been closed, the authorities had allowed for controlled re-opening to allow nationals to return to the island from places such as Barbados, Guyana and Suriname, insisting the closure “was a price the country had to pay to be where we are today.
“I want to remind this country that had we this very well internationally connected nation not taken the steps that we had taken and allowed ourselves to be penetrated in a way that the virus would have been in Trinidad and Tobago in such a concentrated way, that it could have overwhelmed our ability to manage and overwhelmed the health system we had put in place and of course lead to a significant number of deaths, the conversation would have been quite different,’ Rowley said.
During the news conference Rowley acknowledged that a number of Trinidad and Tobago nationals had died in North America and Europe as a result of the virus.
“Many of them died without even being able to get the kind of treatment that is common place in Trinidad and Tobago,” he said, adding “we have done surprisingly well because when we embarked on this we were cratering for the worse.
“What we have put in place and the results that w have got we can say thank God we haven’t got the worse.”