Story by Anna-Lisa Paul

Government is re-introducing restrictions as they attempt to ensure an upsurge in COVID-19 cases does not overwhelm the health care system.

The measures were announced yesterday by Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley who appealed top citizens to comply with public health protocols to wear masks, practice social distancing and remain at home if ill. He warned that legislation will be enacted to make the wearing of face masks mandatory.

Rowley said the elevation of T&T to the level of community spread meant that “decisions have to be made now to prevent that from accelerating to a situation where the number of sick persons requiring hospitalization or isolation becomes so great that the health system does not have the capacity to deal with it.”

He added that the Attorney General is being consulted on the finer details of the proposed legislation which will be announced within the next 48 hours. This will allow action to be taken against those who insist on not wearing a face mask as they are endangering the wider public, he explained.

“We will cease to rely on suasion and move to having it become an offence to not be covered, nose and mouth, in a public place and that such persons—while we may not be able to pick up everybody or find everybody—the law would be put in place so that you will be at the discretion of law enforcement to face that,” he said

“You can avoid it completely by simply doing what we have been asking you to do for three months. We cannot now continue to allow significant proportions of the population to be unmasked when we do know that in managing the virus at this kind of concentration in any population, the wearing of face masks is a useful tool and an effective tool in helping us to restrain the movement of the virus from one person to another. The time for persuasion is now past.”

Businesses will remain open for now but Rowley urged citizens to avoid or minimize unnecessary contact with others where possible.

During the briefing at the Diplomatic Centre, St Ann’s, Rowley highlighted just how dire the situation had become.

“It is very easy to go from the numbers we are at now to much much larger numbers in a very short space of time if we do not seek to push back on the virus now,” he said

On the issue of schools, he said: “It appears at this point that the period of closure for teaching institutions will go until December 31.”

However, the Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA) exam will still take place as scheduled on August 20. The prime minister advised parents to take the students straight to schools for the exam and straight back home afterwards.

He said the first term of the 2020/2021 academic year will not start on September 1.

Groceries, pharmacies, barbershops and beauty salons will continue to operate but people will not be able to congregate. At bars, patrons will have to purchase their alcohol over the counter and leave the premises.

Exercise outdoors will be allowed but face masks must be worn and social distancing observed.

Referring to those on the “lunatic fringe” who had been spray-painting messages on public buildings that COVID-19 is a hoax, Rowley said he hoped they would soon be caught by the police.

He also warned that there would be a more complete closure if the re-introduced measures did not achieve the desired slow-down. He added that the financial assistance previously provided in the form of various grants might not be as available.

Pressed to say if exemptions for nationals wanting to return to T&T will continue to be granted, National Security Minister Stuart Young said: “Right now, we are going to step back a little from the grant of exemptions but we will continue to manage it.”

He said National Security officials will work with the Health Ministry and once the space is available, nationals will be allowed to return. Repatriation flights are being organized for those wanting to leave T&T.

Rowley, noting that it was only during election campaigning that the COVID-19 numbers started increasing said, “It is not as a result of the election and if it was, at least that is behind us now.”