During This Pandemic?
Which mask do you prefer?
Ken Knezick, Island Dreams Travel - Copyright 2020
As COVID-19 drags on, do you feel caught in a time-warp? What we first thought might be over quickly is now into its tenth month. Hopefully, the new vaccines will soon turn the tide, but for now the future remains hazy. At the same time, quite a few Caribbean diving destinations are welcoming international tourism. This report is based on my own November 2020 dive trip to the Turks & Caicos. Along with a small but hearty group of Island Dreamers, we enjoyed a rewarding cruise aboard the Turks & Caicos Aggressor. I am glad to say that all have returned home safely. I learned quite a bit along the way, about how tourism is striving to manage the pandemic. As advance planning is crucial to success, this information and insight is shared in the hopes it will help when you are ready to travel. The underwater photos, included to remind you WHY we love diving, were made on this trip.
Airport - It is mandatory to wear a mask in the airport. Bring a few. Waterless hand-cleaning stations are in abundance. If traveling to a destination that has travel stipulations, you will have to present your approval documentation before being permitted to board the aircraft. For the time being, air travel volume is low, and you may find the airport experience a good deal less hectic than previously. To enhance this aspect, avoid weekend travel if you can.
Flying - As in the airport, onboard the aircraft you must wear a mask other than while eating or drinking. In addition to the mask, I chose to wear a face shield for added protection. That way you have a safe barrier even when your mask is temporarily removed. In-flight food service has been drastically simplified or eliminated. If you wish a meal during the flight, bring your own. If your destination has restrictions in place, you will have to show the airline proof of travel authorization before they will allow you to board. Keep in mind that this may include any domestic USA connecting flights along the way.
Foreign Destinations - As opposed to USA's official response to COVID-19, the dive destinations we enjoy visiting have been much more cautious and proactive. The leaders of these "third-world countries" know they do not have the resources to fight a wide-spread outbreak of a debilitating disease. Therefore, they have adopted and enforced different strategies to stop COVID-19 well before it can get a foothold.
Closed to Tourism - A case in point are the Cayman Islands. Even though tourism is a major component of their economy, the Cayman Islands remain closed to outside travel, with no opening date yet on the horizon. As of this writing, all the Asia-Pacific destinations on our diving map also remain closed to international tourism.
Open with Stipulations - Several of our favorite Caribbean destinations are taking an alternate approach. These now include Belize, Bonaire, and Honduras. I experienced this kind of travel firsthand with a November 2020 trip to the Turks & Caicos. A clear protocol was in place and participation mandatory. My COVID-19 test had to be taken within a specified short window prior to arrival. Documentation of the negative test results had to be provided to the government in advance. I also had to provide proof of health insurance coverage and air evacuation insurance and received formal travel authorization only after all requisite documentation was presented via a well-organized online system.
COVID-19 Testing Options - Fortunately, COVID-19 testing is becoming easier to obtain in the USA, with both local testing and overnight lab shipping choices available. Either way, be sure that yours is a PCR test and that the testing date is within the window stipulated by your destination protocols. Please note that an Antibody Test is not an acceptable alternative. In many cases, health insurance is covering the entire cost of these PCR tests. (What is a PCR Test?)
Local Testing - If you can get your PCR test done locally, with results promised within 24-48 hours, go that route. My wife recently had a local test in Houston and received her negative diagnosis within 24-hours, clearly presented via email and website. To double your chances of success, you might wish to also set up a remote lab test.
Remote Lab - Google search will reveal quite a few companies ready to overnight ship you a PCR test kit. You self-administer the test and then ship the kit back via the included express shipping. You should have results emailed to you within 24-48 hours after the test's arrival back at the lab. Order your test sufficiently in advance - but do not register or begin the actual test until you are just within the proscribed travel window. Then get it shipped back to the lab immediately. For my Turks & Caicos trip, I had very good success and results in 24-hours using a saliva test conducted by AZOVA, https://covidathomesaliva.azova.com/ which I purchased at a discounted price through Costco.
Update: A friend has just reported that Turks & Caicos is no longer accepting tests conducted by pixel.labcorp.com
Proof of Health Insurance - Some (not all) destinations may require proof of health insurance that specifically applies outside the USA and includes coverage for COVID-19 issues. A comprehensive health insurance policy such as Blue Cross Blue Shield should provide coverage for COVID-19 including while traveling outside the USA. However, basic Medicare health insurance does not apply outside the USA. So, if Medicare is your primary health insurance coverage, check the stipulations of your supplemental Medicare policy to see if it includes the requisite protection. Note that the ubiquitous DAN chamber insurance covers air evacuation but excludes Covid-19 hospitalization. As a last resort, you can purchase a short-term travel insurance policy to meet all the requirements.
Put it on Paper - Once you have found a way to meet the testing and insurance stipulations, be sure to carry written documentation of your test results and the specifics of any required health insurance coverage. Before you reach your destination, you will have to present these printed documents multiple times, to both airline and immigration representatives. As some destinations require it, I suggest you carry two copies of your COVID-19 test results.
At the Destination - Both land-based and liveaboard dive destinations are coming to grips with Coronavirus restrictions. They must comply with government-mandated cleaning protocols, mask requirements, and social distancing. In my own recent experience, the Captain and crew of the Turks & Caicos Aggressor went above and beyond to assure us guests of a safe environment. Proof of their efficiency is that my group enjoyed a great week of Caribbean diving and are now all back home safe, sound, and COVID-free.
The Bottom Line - The information above is provided to add to your knowledge. I fully realize that different people are willing to accept varying degrees of risk. Some divers will not feel comfortable to travel until an effective vaccine has been widely administered. Others may appreciate the opportunity to visit dive destinations that have a very low incidence of cases and are being proactive about safety protocols. The decision, of course, is yours. Either way, all of us at Island Dreams will be here to assist you when the time it right. Wishing you safe travels! Ken