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Jamaicans in limbo

Overseas hotel workers uncertain amid air, sea ports lockdown to incoming

BY BALFORD HENRY
Senior staff reporter
balfordh@jamaicaobserver.com

Saturday, March 21, 2020

JAMAICAN hospitality workers in Florida, who had been planning to return to the island next week, were last night left wondering if they would be able to make it home before the air and sea ports close at 11:59 tonight.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness announced the closures to incoming passenger traffic yesterday, the latest salvo in the war against the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) that has so far claimed one life and infected 19 in Jamaica.

“I don't know what to think. I'm just looking and waiting,” said one hotel worker who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Because, if the Jamaican Government says 12 o'clock Saturday night, and we supposed to come home on Monday, what is gonna happen?”

This is his second year on the hospitality programme and he has been working in a Florida hotel since last October.

Florida has been battling the virus that has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, and the hotel where he and his fellow Jamaicans work had already closed by the time they got yesterday's news that they would be unable to return home for at least the next 14 days. The hotel closed its doors five days ago.

The man told the Jamaica Observer that he is not worried about having enough money to last him for the next two weeks because the hotel will continue to pay them until June, when their contract was originally supposed to end. But he is uncertain if they will now need to pay rent in the complex that housed them while they were working. The rent is US$200 every two weeks.

One of his co-workers, who also did not wish to be named, estimated that there were about 200 of them in Florida waiting to return to Jamaica. He, too, was not concerned about having enough to live on over the next 14 days and had only good things to say about how their employers had treated them since the virus began crippling the hotel industry.

Though the hotel had closed, he said, they were still being paid a little over 50 per cent of their usual salary. If they need to remain in Florida for longer than two weeks, his plan is to have family members wire him some of the savings he had sent to his bank account in Jamaica. But that is a last resort.

Yesterday, at the daily press briefing on the COVID-19 crisis, Prime Minister Holness said the lockdown would not affect outgoing passengers and incoming cargo.

He said the Cabinet also agreed to an increased emphasis in relation to the elderly and people at risk by virtue of pre-existing medical conditions.

“So, you are going to be hearing much more from the Government on a much more targeted focus, on ensuring that the public is aware that the Government's response addresses the elderly and those persons with pre-existing conditions,” he said.

He stated that the Government will be recruiting final-year medical students from The University of the West Indies (UWI) to support the clinical and surveillance activities of the Ministry of Health and Wellness.

“We need all the help we can get so as to be able to cover as much ground as possible in ensuring that we can actually contain the spread for as long as possible,” Holness added.

The prime minister also announced an agreement to establish a quarantine centre at The UWI.

Minister of Health and Wellness Dr Christopher Tufton told the briefing that the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases jumped from 16 on Thursday to 19 yesterday.

He listed the three new cases as a 38-year-old male, who is a United States citizen who travelled from Boston, Massachusetts, and who arrived in Jamaica on March 14; a 30-year-old female who arrived from New York on March 17; and a 60-year-old female retiree who is remaining under investigation as she is connected to someone who had already come into the island with the virus.

He said patient number 16, who was found positive on Thursday, is a 57-year-old-male with a history of travel from Long Island, New York, who arrived on March 10.

Dr Tufton also noted that since January 31, a total of 479 people have come to Jamaica from a country with COVID-19 spread. There are 25 patients quarantined in Government facilities; 110 in home quarantine, excluding those quarantined in the Bull Bay, St Andrew and Cornpiece, Clarendon communities; and 46 in isolation in Government facilities, in addition to the two communities quarantined.

Only one death has so far been announced from the 19 patients who have been found with the virus — a 79-year-old man from Cornpiece in Clarendon.