Editor’s Note: Alexander A. Sablan is vice president of business development for
He is also president of the Northern Marianas Business Alliance Corp. and Commonwealth Advocates for Recovery Efforts. Among other community offices, Sablan is a past president of the Saipan Chamber of Commerce.
Gov. Ralph DLG. Torres of the Northern Mariana Islands closed the NMI’s borders in March. Saipan is the point of entry for ongoing United Airlines flights, with passengers quarantined and tested on Day 5. The island has had 92 positive cases as of Oct. 26. The islands of Tinian and Rota remain COVID-19 free. Star Marianas flies between the islands (though no longer between Guam and the NMI) and cargo is carried into the island by United, as well as by Micronesian Air Cargo Services.
The COVID-19 task force conducted community-based testing in Saipan, Tinian and Rota. The NMI is in Community Vulnerability Level Blue, which signifies significant progress in community-based testing.
Torres extended the health emergency on Oct. 14 for another 30 days.
The Commonwealth Healthcare Corp.’s Alternative Care Site to the Commonwealth Health Center in Saipan opened on Oct. 28 at the Kanoa Resort in Chalan Kanoa. The hotel has been fully converted and stocked.
Q: Unlike Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands made the decision to allow its residents to return home and businesspeople to come and go. Is this solely due to faith in the testing regimen, or is there another aspect to that?
A: In April Gov. Torres requested United discontinue service for 30 days, closing off all International flights into the CNMI. During this pause, the Governor’s COVID Task Force ramped up and implemented a border entry testing regime, which has been the major reason the CNMI does not have significant community spread.
Q: Businesses have been allowed to re-open for local trade – though not fully – and Gov. Torres has hinted at further easing of restrictions. We hear that most businesses – and most residents — are following COVID restrictions — would you say that is accurate?
A: Early on we had curfews set in place and a significant roll back of in-person service. With the exception of gaming, no business or industry was curtailed from conducting service to their patrons. With a significant number of our populace adhering to social distancing, mask wearing and hand and facility sanitizing at every establishment public or private the accepted norm – we’ve been highly successful thus far in diminishing community spread. Today all our business and facilities are able to enjoy 75% occupancy for all in-person service establishments and we hope to see 100% relatively soon.
Q: Due to the early closure of the NMI, the fiscal 2020 budget took an early hit, requiring reduction in dollars and staff levels. The NMI took a community approach to the fiscal 2021 budget and the administration worked with — and is continuing to work with the private sector. The governor’s Council of Economic Advisors is a huge group. How is the planning process going?
A: This is definitely a “whole of CNMI approach” with regard to our economy and moving forward cautiously. The Governor’s Council of Economic Advisors and many of the government and private sector civic and business organizations are collaborating to discuss and implement strategies that will hopefully pull us out of the three relatively recent natural disasters and this COVID-related economic downturn. We are hopeful that in our “Together We Can” and “One Marianas” approach we will all come out of this better and stronger as a community.
Q: The Pacific region is watching Hawaii — which re-opened to visitors on Oct. 15 with pre-testing before travel guaranteeing no quarantine if a further test. Palau has pulled back from a tourism bubble with Taiwan. What is the current thinking in the NMI on re-opening and how that will work?
A: The Marianas Visitors Authority Board, management and remaining staff are all on this effort – along with the Governors COVID Task Force to try and open up cautiously through a travel bubble — initially with Korea, then Japan and hopefully China in mid-2021 if not sooner.
CNMI public safety is paramount in the decision making to open our economy to tourism and all measures are being discussed to ensure this is done with that in mind.
Q: Leadership always brings challenges when it comes to motivating and energizing teams, whether that is in business or on a civic board — not to mention having to re-invent the wheel due to COVID. Have you had to draw deep, and where do you draw inspiration from?
A: I am always inspired by our community. Yes, politics plays a pivotal role in our public discourse, but when lives and our community are on the line here, we always seem to find a way to come together to make things work. By any means, it’s not perfect, but it’s our little utopia. It may seem disjointed to some and I’ll admit it can be frustrating, but that’s life. We’ll find a way, because we have to for the sake of us all. mbj