Marshall Islands bans incoming travelers for 14 days

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MAJURO — The Marshall Islands took the unprecedented action Sunday of closing off all airline travel into the country for a two-week period in an effort to prevent importation of the coronarivus or Covid-19.

Sunday meetings of the Marshall Islands National Disaster Committee followed by the cabinet led to issuance of the latest travel advisory that immediately puts into effect a “total suspension of international travelers coming in the Marshall Islands” through March 22.

The move also included the inclusion of France and Spain to the “no fly” list, bringing to 10 the number of countries and areas from which travelers are banned from entering the Marshall Islands. Also on the travel restriction list are China, Macau, Hong Kong, S. Korea, Japan, Italy, Iran and Germany.

About 6,000 tourists visit the Marshall Islands each year.

The new travel advisory was motivated, at least in part, by the announcement late last week that Hawaii confirmed its first Covid-19 case and the spread of the illness throughout the United States, including in areas where large concentrations of Marshall Islanders live.

Health Secretary Jack Niedenthal said the action was designed to buy time for the Marshall Islands to get its isolation facilities set up and healthcare staff up to speed for managing a possible local outbreak of the illness. “We need more time to prepare,” he said Sunday. The decision to issue new travel advisory reflected decision making of the National Disaster Committee, the cabinet and the president, he added.

“The repercussions from the Marshall Islands Ministry of Health March 8 advisory are going to be major,” said local businessman Michael Slinger. It is anticipated that this will temporarily halt the twice-a-week Nauru Airlines service. Currently, an exemption to the Japan travel ban has been in place for the past two weeks that allows United Airlines flight crews who are based in Japan to overnight in Majuro under a special protocol where they are quarantined at a local hotel. This has allowed United Airlines’ regular four weekly flights to continue despite the ban on people coming to Marshall Islands from Japan.

Slinger, in a widely circulated email Sunday night after the new travel advisory was issued, called for better consultation with business and community leaders outside of government on government Covid-19 actions. “Engage and involve the private sector at all levels and let us help is the basic message,” Slinger said.

Decision-making on the travel advisories — Sunday’s was the ninth issued by the Ministry of Health and Human Services since January — has changed, said Niedenthal. In the early stage of the Covid-19 outbreak, the ministry was driving decisions. Now, the government-wide National Disaster Committee is playing a major role in shaping each of the advisories with input and review from the cabinet, he said.

In addition to the ban on incoming air travelers, the new travel advisory states “All aircraft that need to land in the Marshall Islands for refueling purposes must adhere to the Marshall Islands Ports Authority standard operating procedures. Human-to-human contact is strictly prohibited.”

Visits by cruise ships and yachts are also suspended until further notice. While cruise ships only visit the country once or twice a year, Majuro is a popular destination for the international yachting community.

Travel by government officials and elected leaders, paid for by the Marshall Islands government or outside donors, continues to be banned. The only exception is for patients referred for off-island medical treatment.

The government also “strongly advised” citizens and residents to postpone international travel until further notice.

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