MIAMI — Starting Tuesday, all travelers to the U.S. will have to test negative for COVID-19 within three days before their flights, even if the country they are flying from has low testing capacity.
In a last-minute switch to the rule first announced by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Jan. 12, airlines will not be allowed to apply for a waiver for countries where it is difficult or impossible for their passengers to get a negative COVID-19 test result within three days. The agency eliminated the provision that allowed for waivers over the weekend, leaving some Caribbean governments spinning to keep up with the changing rules and protect their economies.
The change to the rule comes after President Joe Biden signed an executive order last week that made masks mandatory on public transportation and tasked several federal agencies with reviewing how best to implement a quarantine requirement for international travelers upon their arrival to the U.S. On Monday, the Biden administration re-implemented an entry ban on nearly all non-U.S. travelers who have recently visited Brazil, the United Kingdom, Ireland and 26 countries in Europe, and will add South Africa to that list on Saturday, Reuters reported, which is experiencing a newer, more infectious variant of the virus.
“To align with the new executive orders from President Biden and to further reduce the spread of COVID-19, CDC is removing the option for airlines or other aircraft operators with flights from countries that lack testing capacity for SARS-CoV-2 to apply for two-week waivers from the order,” said CDC spokesperson Caitlin Shockey via email. “With the US already in surge status, the testing requirement for all air passengers will help slow the spread of the virus as we work to vaccinate the American public.”
Shockey said passengers who are unable to secure a test result within the three-day window should contact their airline about testing options and, if necessary, rerouting flights to transit through countries with higher capacity.
A spokesperson for Miramar-based Spirit Airlines, which flies to more than a dozen Caribbean destinations, said the company is working on compiling testing information for each country to share with passengers and will continue to waive change fees. A spokesperson for American Airlines, Miami International’s largest carrier, said the company will continue to waive change fees except for tickets purchased in “basic economy,” and will waive the fare difference for passengers with scheduled flights through Feb. 9.
Both airlines had previously said they planned to apply for the waivers.
Since the CDC announced the testing rule, Caribbean governments and hoteliers have been meeting in hopes of responding to the increased demand for tests — and saving their pandemic-crushed tourism industry.
Some have adopted new protocols to allow for the use of rapid antigen testing, while others have opened testing facilities in major hotels and resorts. The increased capacity and quick turn around time (24 hours in a place like Aruba) has become a marketing tool.
Still, many countries struggled to get results in a timely manner even before the CDC order. Some countries still lack the ability to do their own testing or provide testing through their vast territories.
Last week, Jamaica, which counts the U.S. as its biggest tourism market, announced that it has opened additional testing facilities at major hotels and throughout the country in an effort to bolster capacity.
The demand is coming not just from the U.S., but from Canada and the United Kingdom, which have already introduced requirements for airline passengers to provide a negative laboratory PCR test to enter. The CDC requires a PCR test or a rapid antigen test.
In countries like Jamaica that have been struggling to ramp up capacity, the elimination of the waiver option was not well received.
“I’m convinced that the implication of all of this is in pursuance of a ‘No Travel’ strategy without coming out, outright to say so,” said Jamaica Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett. “The insensitivity of its implications to the economy of a number of Caribbean countries in particular, and the wider global economy, which is heavily driven by travel and tourism, is of concern to us because while we think the U.S. will be able to survive an extended period of massive travel restrictions, the Caribbean will be having a serious crisis.”
Bartlett called the CDC’s new decision “a recipe for absolute disaster.”
The U.S., he said, along with the U.K., are not thinking about the “unintended consequences” of their new policies on the economies and livelihoods of Caribbean countries.
“We developed strategies, we developed protocols and we all agree on them. And when we apply them and when we do them at great costs to ourselves and to our people and our economies in a moment’s notice, we are shut down,” he said.
Across the Caribbean, governments have reported substantial job losses as a result of the pandemic. In Jamaica, for example, the country reported a 7% unemployment rate before the coronavirus. Between June and October last year, it jumped to 10.7%, the tourism minister said.
“Already it is being projected that the Caribbean is going to go into a huge foreign-exchange crisis and by extension an economic crisis if these COVID restrictions continue at the level or even escalated as intended,” Bartlett said. “We who are highly travel and tourism-dependent countries, and who are highly reliant on a U.S. travel policy for our own survival, see some of these measures as very hostile to our own development.”