Cuba is now one month into the “new normal.” At least, almost the entire island. Since last October 12, most of the Cuban provinces officially entered that status, which seeks to boost the economy after months of the coronavirus pandemic, although without neglecting epidemiological surveillance and hygienic-sanitary measures to prevent a new wave of COVID-19.
Only Ciego de Ávila, Sancti Spíritus and Pinar del Río—which had to regress due to a strong outbreak of the disease—remain in the phase of limited autochthonous transmission; while Havana, even though it has shown favorable indicators in recent weeks, continues in phase 3 of the recovery stage, in which many of the services and activities have already been restored.
As part of this normalization of life in the country, all Cuban international airports reopened to commercial flights in mid-October, with the exception of José Martí in Havana, which will finally do so next Sunday, November 15. The air terminals of the tourist destinations of the keys adjacent to the island had already been authorized, the only ones that until then offered their services to international tourism, although in practice only Jardines del Rey, in the north keys of the central Cuba, did so. It began its regular operations in September with flights from Canada, which were joined this month by others from Russia.
For their reopening, the airports underwent repairs and adaptation to the new epidemiological conditions, after which they received certification from the Ministry of Public Health (MINSAP). They also established a strict sanitary protocol, which includes a mandatory declaration of health by travelers, taking temperature and carrying out a PCR test upon arrival in the country, disinfection of luggage, and reinforcement of physical distancing in the interior and exterior areas of the air terminals.
In addition, according to Cuban Prime Minister Manuel Marrero, when explaining the new strategy to deal with COVID-19 on the island, foreign visitors “will go to their hotels and there they will be observed by health authorities. Meanwhile, the nationals will carry out their isolation in their homes and will also receive care from the primary health system.”
After the authorization for its reopening and with the application of the established biosafety measures, the main Cuban airports have gradually restarted their operations.
Camagüey’s Ignacio Agramonte, for example, resumed its operations on October 20 with the arrival of a flight from Cancun, Mexico, of the Viva Aerobus airline, which has increased its weekly frequencies from two to four—now it arrives on Mondays, Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays to the Camagüey terminal—a figure it plans to double in the second half of this month. In addition, as of next November 19, the Fly AllWays airline will again reconnect Camagüey with Suriname every Thursday, according to the Agencia Cubana de Noticias news agency, and others could come later with the advance of the tourist season.
Meanwhile, the Antonio Maceo airport in Santiago de Cuba―which in recent months had been operating non-commercial and humanitarian flights―also resumed its regular operations in the second half of October with flights to and from various destinations. InterCaribbean Airways began connecting the city of Santiago with the Dominican Republic and Jamaica; Viva Aerobus, with the Mexican resort of Cancun; Sunrise Airways, with Haiti; and since November 10, Cubana de Aviación does so with Madrid every Tuesday. In addition, the Santiago airport also expects more flights from countries such as Suriname, Italy and Canada, to the extent that it increases its operations.
The Juan Gualberto Gómez in Varadero beach resort―Cuba’s main sun and beach destination and one of the most recognized in the world―also started working since last October 25, when it received its first international tourists from the United Kingdom. Since then, in addition to flights from London, managed by the Anglo-German tourist group TUI, it has also started receiving travelers from Mexico, Canada and Germany, in the latter case through Cóndor airline, which flies from Dusseldorf and Frankfurt. And it is presumed there will be an increase in its operations with more flights from these and other parts of the planet during the peak tourist season, especially from Europe, unless the pandemic makes it impossible.
For its part, the Frank País in Holguín―through which visitors arrive with reservations in another important Cuban tourist center, Guardalavaca―started receiving commercial flights again on November 2 with the arrival of a plane from the Sunrise Airways airline from Haiti. This air connection has three weekly frequencies, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, while two weekly flights also arrive from the Canadian cities of Toronto and Montreal thanks to the Air Transat airline, and others can be incorporated in the short term, as in Abel Santamaría Airport in Santa Clara. The latter also began its regular operations this month, with the arrival of the first tourists from the Cayo Santa María destination, north of Villa Clara. Among the expected airlines is the Canadian OWG, which will also fly to Holguín and Jardines del Rey.
In all these airports, and also in the capital, the same customs rules apply―which are not necessarily the same as those of the airlines, so they must be checked with those of the latter―which are now conditioned by the established international regulations after the pandemic. For these reasons, two suitcases weighing up to 32 kg are allowed in Cuba, as well as a hand luggage weighing up to 10 kg. In addition, the importation of up to 10 kg of medicines, free of payment, and other products is maintained, with a limit of 1,000 pesos―according to the values of the products established by Cuban Customs―but in the unaccompanied cargo mode through a shipping agency, which must be dispatched in advance of the trip.
If the established amounts are exceeded, the luggage or cargo with overdrawn weight will be returned to the airport of origin by the airline and in case it does not do so within a period of one month, then the customs authorities can confiscate it by abandonment.
The official announcement of the reopening of Havana’s José Martí International Airport on November 15 put an end to weeks of speculation and rumors. The resumption of regular operations at the Havana airport, the main gateway to Cuba and the only one that can receive flights from the United States, was long-awaited news inside and outside the island, and will leave behind an eight-month spell without commercial operations, after the closure of Cuban borders as a preventive measure against COVID-19.
Although in theory, due to the de-escalation phase that the Cuban capital has been in for a month now, the José Martí could have already been opened, the Cuban authorities handled this step with secrecy and caution, opting to maintain until now only humanitarian and cargo flights while remodeling and touch-ups were being carried out, and organizational details were finalized. However, a few days ago there were signs that the reopening would not take long.
In a meeting with German tour operators earlier this month, Prime Minister Manuel Marrero said that the Havana airport would start operations “in the next few days,” while the press and aviation entities confirmed that its facilities were “ready to operate.” This was reported on Monday by the Cuban Airport and Airport Services Company (ECASA) and official journalist Bernardo Espinosa, who affirmed that terminals two and three of José Martí airport in Havana were already qualified to reopen with the necessary biosafety protocols. This triggered rumors about its alleged reopening this Wednesday―a prior notification (Notam) from the Cuban Air Navigation Company had set the closure until Tuesday 10―something that finally did not happen, a fact that could have been affected by the proximity to the island of Tropical Storm Eta.
Days ago, Julio Alberto Alonso, the director of ECASA, had already explained in a meeting of the Havana Provincial Defense Council that operations would begin at Terminal Three and then Terminal Two and One would be incorporated, the latter dedicated to domestic flights and that, like the other two, also “received construction benefits.” Then he said that “intense remodeling” was carried out at the Havana airport and sanitary regulations were adopted that were put in place at the reception of humanitarian flights and serve as experience for the official reopening.
However, the note from the Institute of Civil Aeronautics published this Tuesday only states that “it has been decided to restart commercial, regular and charter air operations at the José Martí International Airport” and does not detail which terminals will begin operating “on November 15 at 00 hours.” Faced with this doubt, OnCuba contacted the information services of the Havana airport, which confirmed that in principle Terminal Three would open, which would host international flights for the time being, and Terminal Two would be added later. Terminal One, for its part, will start operating next Monday, with the restart of connections between Havana and the eastern cities of Santiago de Cuba and Holguín, while those of the Cuban capital and the Isla de la Juventud are maintained.
But beyond the terminals that are now reopening, there are numerous airlines that were waiting for the news to begin flying to Havana, the same from Europe and Latin America as from Canada and the United States, where a large community of emigrants from the island reside. For this reason, they had kept abreast of official notifications, without closing the door to unofficial information, and not a few had begun to sell tickets to Cuba, having to reschedule their flights several times. This is the case of the U.S. American Airlines and JetBlue that have been postponing their trips pending the official announcement of the startup. Meanwhile, others such as the Spanish Iberia and Evelop, the French Air France and the Panamanian Copa Airlines, have already announced their operations to the Cuban capital as of the indicated date and explaining to their clients the instructions they must follow to fly to the island.
Health protocols and the PCR of discord
As part of the protocol established for its entry into operation, Cuban airports―including Havana―have established a group of biosafety standards, based on the indications of the government and MINSAP, as well as on the recommendations of the working group of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), as was explained recently by the island’s authorities in a virtual meeting on aeronautic operations’ recovery in North and Central America and the Caribbean.
The aim of these provisions, according to the official note on the reopening of José Martí International Airport, is “to guarantee the health and life of its nationals, as well as the foreigners who visit us, ratifying it as a safe destination, whose results in terms of confronting the pandemic are recognized internationally.”
Among the measures adopted are the mandatory use of masks for travelers, companions, employees―who also use other means of protection depending on their work―and other people present at the air terminals, as well as maintaining the required physical distance in the different areas and facilities. Also, the disinfection and cleaning of hands, luggage, cargo, aircraft and surfaces, medical evaluation and temperature control of travelers and workers, who, if they present more than 37 degrees or other suspicious symptoms, will be transferred to a temporary isolation room and then to a health institution.
In addition, only passengers may enter the interior of the airport, unless they need a companion due to a disability, while relatives or friends who come to see them off or receive them must remain, in a reduced number, in the portals and outdoor areas. The areas for parking cars and taxis are also regulated.
El #aeropuerto José Martí, en #LaHabana, se encuentra listo para abrir próximamente. Comenzará primero por Terminal Tres, luego se incorporarán la Dos y la Uno, según informó ECASA. Cumplirá con las medidas de bioseguridad establecidas. #Cuba pic.twitter.com/80YeB4mkSb
— Cubahora (@CUBAH0RA) November 10, 2020
As already explained, all travelers arriving in Cuba must present a mandatory health declaration and will undergo a PCR test to detect the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. The latter has been the bone of contention due to its possible collection by the Cuban authorities. Although an official communication was not initially given in this regard, travel agencies and alternative media disclosed that these tests would be free for tourists and Cubans residing on the island, while Cubans residing abroad would have to pay 50 USD for it, using magnetic cards, which generated criticism and controversy on social networks.
However, as Cuban airports were reopening, state media published, as part of information associated with the restart of air operations and the health protocols applied, that the diagnostic tests were free for all travelers as a way to “provide security.” Even a report from just three days ago about international flights at the Camagüey air terminal after the passage of Tropical Storm Eta reiterated it.
But the official information about the upcoming reopening of the Havana airport has changed the ball again. It states that “according to the provisions of the Public Health authorities, as of this date (November 15), the collection of a health fee has been foreseen, in order to cover the costs of the implemented protocols.” The note, however, does not specify how much this fee will be or what services it includes. Neither who should pay it—if all travelers or only non-residents in the country—nor how this payment will be made, nor if this measure applies only to the Havana airport or will be extended to all Cuban air terminals.
So far, these questions have not been publicly clarified, neither by the official media nor by the competent authorities and institutions, which just days after this provision came into force maintains a cloak of uncertainty on the subject. OnCuba contacted the Corporación de la Aviación Cubana S.A. (CACSA)—which encompasses the different state-owned companies in the airline sector—where they still didn’t have an answer on this matter, and also with the José Martí airport, whose Public Health department said it doesn’t yet have specifications in this regard, which are in charge of the Cuban Medical Services Marketing company—which we tried to contact unsuccessfully—and must be made public before the reopening of the airport this Sunday.
Risks and responsibilities
But the health protocol for travelers arriving in Cuba from abroad does not end at the air terminals. Upon arrival on the island, they must specify the place to which they are going―hotel, rental house, house of relatives or friends―and there they must remain isolated until the result is known of the nasopharyngeal sample that was performed at the airport, and even more.
According to the Cuban authorities, it is expected that this result will be 24 or 48 hours after the diagnostic test has been carried out, but the isolation must be extended to at least five days after arrival, in which travelers must do without parties, family gatherings or other social events and stay in their hotels or homes, where they will be periodically checked by primary healthcare personnel. If their PCR test is positive, they will be hospitalized and their contacts isolated, also subjected to a diagnostic test and kept under surveillance until the result confirms or rules out their infection with SARS-CoV-2.
Because of all the above, the Cuban government has called for strict surveillance of travelers and to thoroughly explain to them the risks of an irresponsible attitude, both for their health and for that of the people with whom they have contact after their arrival in the country. In the specific case of the capital, and given the volume of operations that the José Martí airport will begin to have again, the Havana authorities have classified the stage that begins this Sunday as “a challenge,” which they consider can only be won “with a meticulous and permanent control system for travelers.”
This is not an idle appreciation at all. To give you an idea, in the first ten days of November, Cuba reported 494 positive cases of COVID-19, of which 86 were imported, that is, they had their source of infection abroad, which represents a nonnegligible 17.4%. But if the 58 infections detected at the end of this Wednesday are added, these figures rise to 552 and 112, which raises by 20% the percentage of imported cases this month. And it is highly presumable that these records will increase once the Havana airport restarts its commercial operations, which not only worries the authorities but also part of the population.
The reopening of José Martí International Airport will therefore be a trial by fire for Cuba, at a time when a large part of its territory is already experiencing the “new normal” and the cases of COVID-19 show a stable level, even when the risk of new outbreaks is still present, as evidenced by what happened in recent weeks in Pinar del Río. Reality will then tell how the return of regular flights to Havana may or may not affect this scenario, and how effective the island’s sanitary protocols will be in this new step, the same ones that until now have largely kept the disease at bay.