BY GIFF JOHNSON
Marshall Islands Correspondent
MAJURO, Marshall Islands — Businesses have been hit hard by a combination of fishing vessel arrival bans, container ship quarantine requirements and a two-week ban on all incoming travelers implemented by the Marshall Islands government to prevent the importation of the coronavirus COVID-19, which has spread to more than 100 countries globally.
No confirmed cases have been identified through March 10 and the Ministry of Health and Human Services was feverishly pushing ahead on renovations and construction of two isolation facilities, bringing in safety gear for health workers, and training health staff in procedures for providing services to possible future COVID-19 patients.
The travel advisory halting all inbound travel through March 22 was motivated, at least in part, by the announcement that Hawaii now has confirmed COVID-19 cases and the spread of the illness throughout the United States, including in areas where large concentrations of Marshall Islanders live.
“The repercussions from the Marshall Islands Ministry of Health March 8 advisory are going to be major,” said local businessman Michael Slinger, who operates aquaculture export, office supply and video businesses.
The temporary ban on purse seine fishing vessel visits has reduced tuna transshipment activity in Majuro, which in the past five years has developed into the busiest transshipment port in the world.
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 yachting community.
Although United Airlines confirmed that it is not halting service to the Marshall Islands in response to the inbound travel ban, the first flight to Honolulu after the ban went into effect was packed with tourists and local residents getting on what many thought would be the last flight until after March 22.
Hotel Robert Reimers, one of the two main hotels on Majuro, has been hard hit by travel bans instituted by the government as a preventive measure. “We’ve had a lot of cancellations,” said RRE Hotel Manager Colette Reimers “and it’s affecting business.”
A delivery of U.S. currency to the Bank of Guam scheduled for March 9 was delayed due to the inbound travel ban that was issued the night before, prompting the bank to initially appeal to its business customers to deposit cash to tide it over. The courier who escorts the cash shipment from Guam was held back because of the travel ban. Health Secretary Jack Niedenthal said he spoke with Bank of Guam Manager Jackey Salomon and provided an exemption for the bank’s courier as this qualified as an “essential service.” The cash shipment was expected to arrive late last week.
In addition to the two-week ban on inbound arrivals, the Marshall Islands has banned travel directly from 10 countries and territories: China, Macau, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, Italy, Iran, Germany, France and Spain. More nations are expected to be added to the “no fly” list.
Niedenthal said these actions were designed to buy time for the Marshall Islands to get its isolation facilities built and healthcare staff up to speed for managing a possible local outbreak of the illness. “We need more time to prepare,” he said.
Business representatives asked the government for more engagement with the private sector in developing its COVID-19 response.
The issue of tax relief has also been put on the table. “With the denial of entries from both air and sea, many companies are going to struggle to pay the bills in the next few months,” said Randall Sylvester, who operates computer retail stores in both Majuro and Pohnpei. “The crew of the fishing boats are big customers of many local businesses especially the supermarkets. Business and leisure travelers will not be staying at the hotels or eating at restaurants. Since we have a gross revenue tax system, taxes are assessed even if the company takes a loss. Might be time to start thinking about waiving, reducing or at the very least deferring taxes.” mbj