“Flexibility for the Island!” – Community Members Oppose the New COVID Restrictions for Bocas del Toro

  • Bocas del Toro has a low amount of active COVID-19 cases compared to other regions in the country (99 in the whole province, 6 in the island district as of December 12th).
  • On December 15th, Panama’s Ministry of Health announced stricter health measures nationwide for at least December 18, 2020 to January 4th, 2021.
  • In less than 24 hours of the news, the new restrictions are causing mass cancellations by would-be visitors to the islands and further devastation to the tourism-dependent economy of Bocas del Toro.
  • The local municipal council opposes these restrictions for Bocas del Toro islands and has appealed to the national government for special consideration as a tourist zone with a low COVID-19 case rate.
  • Residents and business owners are planning to demonstrate their opposition to the health measures  on Friday, December 18, 2020.

 

This image and the featured image above are both courtesy of Alfredo Jurado Photography.

The gradual reopening of the country seemed to be going well in Bocas del Toro. The community has been able to maintain low COVID-19 case numbers, even while starting to welcome visitors again. As of December 12th, there were six active cases on the islands, all isolated at home. Since Tocumen International Airport restarted its commercial flights on October 12, little by little, people from all over the world have come to enjoy the islands; investing their money in the local economy that so desperately needs it. Hotels, restaurants, tour operators and many affected businesses have been patiently waiting since March to get back to work. They have overcome many obstacles in the last 2 months, just to open their doors. Bocas del Toro was starting to gain momentum and feel something like its old self again. Reservations were coming in for Christmas, New Years and the upcoming surf season. Things were looking somewhat hopeful.

Then on December 15th, the Ministry of Health announced new COVID-19 regulations that have really taken a blow to the community’s concept of tourism. Starting on December 18th, the curfew will be at 7pm, instead of the 11pm time that it had been since October 25th, effectively eliminating the restaurant dinner scene. Also announced were multiple days of “total quarantine” after Christmas Day and New Years, which not only will confine tourists to their hotels for whole days while on vacation, but also complicates travel plans for people flying on those dates. Total quarantine refers to a day or multiple days of lockdown where no movement is permitted, without a special permission from the government called a “salvoconducto.” Perhaps the hardest hit to the Bocas del Toro touristic offer is the closure of the beaches from December 23rd to January 4th. Many travel specifically to enjoy the many beaches of the archipelago and to participate in the beginning of the surf season. During the quarantine, Bocas del Toro Ministry of Health granted access to the beach for people pursuing physical exercise, including surfing. However, at the time of this article, the National Police assert that starting December 23rd, there will be no beach access of any kind, including surfing. This is a deal breaker for many.

People are canceling their trips to Bocas del Toro. Hotel reservation after hotel reservation are being postponed or cancelled after less than 24 hours of the news being published. The Bocas Breeze received a message from one reader who actually still plans to come, even though all his friends have cancelled. However, he is still concerned about how he will make his flight during the total quarantine lockdown January 1st-4th. “We really weren’t expecting Panama to go under such strict rules again. A lot of my friends were going to come down but now they aren’t…sad. We still are though! Fingers crossed. Hopefully they let us leave on Jan 2,” writes Pete Milnes on Instagram. Most travelers will not be as adventurous as Pete, especially as the tourism market is a global one, where one can just schedule their holidays in a place with similar offerings, but less restrictions.

The Bocas Breeze Newspaper alone has been contacted by its international readership regarding the cancellation of 23 would-be visitors; and that is just in one day. Suppose that for every visitor, each one would have spent at least $1,000 each during their time in Bocas del Toro; a modest figure, depending on the length of their stay and their tastes, but just a number for the sake of argument. That represents over $20,000 that will not be entering the local economy based on this decision, and that is only the number of would-be visitors that took the time to write our newspaper. The total amount of reservations canceled and tourism dollars lost is impossible to know at this moment; however, it is significant.

Image courtesy of Alfredo Jurado Photography

On the other hand, there are those watching from afar whose communities have been devastated by the virus itself and are applauding Panama’s strict and uniform COVID-19 measures.

As a US citizen who just visited Panama it was really nice to see a country with tougher restrictions doing it well. In the U.S. we are fighting every government restriction and now we have terrible consequences. Be unified! Do it for the elderly and the vulnerable!” wrote Kimberly Dawn Howard to The Bocas Breeze Newspaper on Facebook.

Of course there are Bocas del Toro residents that feel the danger of the virus is too great to be risking the health of the population and are welcoming the new restrictions as the best course of action. “It’s delicate, since the contamination will enter again if they happen to ‘liberate’ the islands of restrictions,” said Claudia Eppelin, also on Facebook. Other messages that poured into our social media as we polled our readers:

“They should evaluate the Rt [effective rate of transmission] by province, and apply measures according to each situation.

“I think that cities with high rates of infection should have more restrictive measures.”

As Panamanian surfer Pucha Garcia commented on Twitter, most everyone can agree that the beaches should be opened before the casinos:

It is safe to say that most people in Bocas del Toro are not opposed to shutting down the communities where the spread of COVID-19 is on the rise and presenting a serious health risk, however, Bocas del Toro is not one of those communities. Many would prefer not to have to pay for the lack of cooperation and the misfortune of the other areas in the country.

On December 16, 2020, the Bocas del Toro municipal council has directed statements to the national government, appealing these restrictions then they published the Agreement No. 93, requesting “special treatment for the district of Bocas del Toro” from the Ministry of Health. In the document, the local government cites the low case rate on the islands, the continued cooperation of its residents, the lack of consultation from the national government in regards to this measure and the negative economic and social impact that the new restrictions will cause.

 

Part of the document published from Bocas del Toro’s municipal council, December 16,2020

 

Early on the morning of December 16th, 2020, the business community and residents were feeling very much the same way as the local government in regards to the low incident rates of COVID-19 and the amount of economic devastation that these new restrictions will cause. By the afternoon, the members of the community had already planned a peaceful demonstration to bring more attention to the situation. It is planned for 9am at the ferry dock, Friday, December 18th, 2020. Those in favor of less restrictions for Bocas del Toro would like the national government to consider the following changes to the COVID-19 protocol for the the islands of Bocas del Toro for December 18, 2020 until January 4th, 2021:

    • Beaches open until 5pm

    • Curfew 10pm to 5am

    • Allow national and international tourists to enter the island district of Bocas del Toro with a PCR test, starting Saturday, December 19

    • These rules to be applied until January 4th, 2021

Do you agree with these community members? Do you disagree? All opinions and discussions are welcome. Find us on Instagram and Facebook and let us know how you feel in the comment section on our recent posts related to this subject.

 

The flyer for Friday’s demonstration. “Yo no me rifo mi encomia” means “I don’t gamble with my economy.” It is a reference to a statement that President Nito Cortizo made recently where he said something to the effect of “I am going to gamble,” meaning that he himself would not be staying at home because of the virus; that he would take his chances.

 

The Bocas Breeze is a digital and print newspaper proudly serving the Bocas del Toro community since 2004; reporting news, advertising local businesses and promoting tourism in Bocas del Toro, Panama.

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