Saipan —The CNMI is hitting the reset button once again, just after the economy started picking up from the devastation left behind by the super typhoon Yutu two years ago.
After almost five months of having zero arrivals due to restrictions related to Covid-19, the CNMI is now in progress toward opening its borders and restarting its economy. The goal is to begin welcoming tourists by July 15, which is a moving target, according to CNMI Gov. Ralph Torres.
“In following your call for the resumption of the American economy, the CNMI has begun our efforts to follow suit in seeking ways to bring back commercial activity and regain the momentum we lost since the outbreak of this disease,” Torres said in a June 18 letter to President Trump. “We feel that we are in a stable position to once more resume economic activity and resuming international flights is key to doing so in any meaningful way.”
What will it be like to revive an entire economy after a super typhoon and now amid a pandemic?
Esther Muna, CEO of the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp., compares it to driving on a bumpy road through a thick fog up to Mount Tapochao, the highest mountain on Saipan. “After a super typhoon, the fog has cleared and you just have to maneuver the bumps (chronic diseases) but now also the mud (new health issues) along the way.”
Trying to emerge from a double whammy is a different story.
“With Covid-19, absent a vaccine, not only do we have the bumpy and muddy road, the fog hasn't cleared. It may be thinner but we're still somewhat blind,” Muna said.
“In other words, with a super typhoon, the health strategy is to ensure that you manage what's in front of you but also preparing for attention to new health issues that may arise because of delayed care or with the mental and medical stress one must endure before, during, and after a disaster. On the other hand, with this pandemic, the health strategy is the same but the clearing of the fog must continue. The clearing includes enhanced testing capability, symptom monitoring of travelers, and contact tracing,” she added
Since January, CHCC had been coordinating with Torres to strengthen the healthcare system capacity by ensuring that the only hospital in the CNMI has the ability to manage any possible surge in patient traffic. “This included having a cooperative agreement with outside healthcare providers that can be triggered when a certain level in the census is reached,” Muna said. “We also have more than adequate personal protective equipment to protect our healthcare workers and first responders while equipment, medical and pharmaceutical supplies were purchased to increase our stockpile.”
The CNMI was the first in the region to test for Covid-19 and one of the first in the nation to use the Sara Alert monitoring system since March that helps CHCC with the monitoring of travelers and contacts of confirmed cases.
“We have one of the best testing strategies in the nation that not only test those with symptoms but also test those without and also not only the ability to test residents but also visitors coming to our islands. This was when only Atlanta was testing and it took about 14 days for the result, and so we made testing a top priority,” she said. “Also, while we already had contact tracers in our health system, we immediately added cadres of contact tracers to identify other cases in our population to further contain the virus and prevent widespread community transmission.”
Reopening the CNMI economy means reopening its border. “Tourism is the lifeblood of the CNMI economy. The reliance on tourism to stimulate economic activity has resulted in a severe collapse of the economy following the outbreak of the novel coronavirus,” states the Torres administration’s Tourism Resumption Blueprint.
The Torres administration acknowledged that the resumption of tourism in the advent of the Covid-19 outbreak and in the absence of a proven vaccine for the disease is a complex challenge. “Any plan that seeks to resume international flights to the Saipan International Airport must be aimed toward mitigating the potential spread of the disease among the local population, prevent visitors from contracting the disease while present in the CNMI, and establishes a framework to accomplish these goals while maintaining demand and affordability among the potential tourism market,” states the blueprint.
In opening the CNMI borders, Commonwealth Ports Authority board chair Kimberly King-Hinds said the CPA's job is to be ready. “Our management team has been hard at work implementing mitigation measures to ensure the safety of our employees, partners and the traveling public. These measures include an enhanced hard surface cleaning and sanitation of the facility, and the installation of safeguards such as sneeze guards and decals to ensure that social distancing requirements are followed,” she said.
“These measures are consistent with what other jurisdictions are already doing. With that said, this is a rapidly developing situation and we are doing our best to stay on top of the latest developments on what the most current best practices are for airport operations in the age of Covid-19,” she added.
The CPA has not received any confirmation from any of the airlines as to when they will resume services. “Honestly, the biggest challenge is fear and people are scared,” Hinds said. “This a challenge that we have never faced before and what I am proud of is how the CNMI has responded to this crisis-we were the first to shut down and it is looking like we are also the last to reopen and the conversations around re-opening has been slow and deliberate based on facts, hard data and science.”
“These challenges and the struggle to balance public health concerns and the need to open the economy will remain. Hard decisions are being made on a daily basis. There is no easy answer to the challenges that lie ahead but we have proven ourselves to be a resilient bunch and for now, that's enough,” she said.
During disasters and emergencies, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is there for the rescue. In this pandemic crisis, FEMA’s role is to facilitate the movement of goods and services, according to Todd Hoose, FEMA’s External Affairs officer. “After working on the FEMA response to typhoon Mangkhut and being here through super typhoon Yutu with this government, I was very impressed with their response and with their dedication toward keeping the residents of the CNMI safe through the Covid-19 pandemic. FEMA employees are on these islands with all of you. Our lives and safety also rely on the response and decisions made by the CHCC and the CNMI Governor’s Covid Task force. The governor’s team and Ester with the CHCC have kept us safe,” he said.
“We took the advice of the real professionals in the medical field and did all we could to provide the materials, increased the medical capacity and the wraparound services that are real experts in viral pandemics identified. FEMA does not play a role in influencing what the governor and the CHCC should do to open the islands to tourism and when that should happen. Just like everyone else, I will be here trusting that our CNMI government, our National government and our medical professionals will do what is in our best interest,” he added.
Chris Concepcion, former managing director of the Marianas Visiting Authority faced several challenges in bringing tourists back after super typhoon Yutu.
“First, resumption of air service since all airlines cancelled flights for some for months due to the extensive damage at the Saipan International Airport and due to the nature of aircraft scheduling and utilization. Second, we had to address the major damage hotels experienced especially in the southern portion of Saipan.," Concepcion said.
"This handicapped our ability to house tourists and the residents and emergency personnel who sought temporary lodging at our resorts. Third, the cleanup needed at the tourist sites that were destroyed by Yutu, which required significant resources and manpower. Lastly, addressing the marketing aspect of it which entailed us having to send positive messages out to our source markets assuring them that the CNMI was resilient, that we were recovering quicker than initially anticipated and that we were ready to welcome visitors back to our gorgeous islands.”
Concepcion said the Covid-19 pandemic is a whole different story and something the travel industry has never dealt with before. “It will take an enormous amount of effort on the part of the CNMI government and the private businesses that rely on the tourism industry for survival to get out of this mess. The first thing on a traveler’s mind today is safety at the airport, on the plane, in the car, bus or train, at the hotel, at restaurants, at shopping centers, grocery stores and gift shops, at the sites and attractions they will be visiting.”
“This will not be easy or cheap, but we have to do it if we want to keep our residents and visitors safe. Importantly, the CNMI needs the commitment of the airlines, tour operators, hotels and other industry stakeholders to work together to get over this hurdle because I believe this too shall pass,” he added.