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Tuesday, January 26, 2021

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

It’s a logical next step: At some point some tourism-hungry locality will go for it and develop an ad campaign that says, “Come visit. We’re as safe as can be from the coronavirus.”  

Don’t be surprised if the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands is that locality. It has a history of getting this first and getting it right. 


While big American states with nearly unlimited access to federal resources such as New York and New Jersey floundered, the Northern Marianas — an American commonwealth two-thirds of the way from Hawaii to the Philippines — seems to have stopped the pandemic in its tracks.  

Yes, the Northern Mariana Islands have some built-in advantages — 184 square miles, 54,000 people in the middle of the Pacific Ocean — that helped it keep the numbers low. But the government of the Commonwealth of the islands deserves some credit as well.  

It was the first state or territory to take local action to protect its citizens. It began screening passengers who flew in to take advantage of its beaches and warm weather on Jan. 20, just 20 days after anyone in the U.S. had become aware of the virus. It set up isolation units at the international airport at Saipan to treat passengers who arrived ill.  

In March, when Americans were first coming to terms with COVID-19 and its potential effects on the economy, the Northern Mariana Islands formed its own COVID task force.  

When nearby Guam reported its first three cases, the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands shut down its government, suspended classes at its schools and community college and started an information campaign — “Stay at Home, Stop the Spread” that promoted social distancing and restricting unnecessary travel.  

When the virus arrived in the islands in early March, with two confirmed cases, the government of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands was ready with additional PPE and other resources for medical workers. It secured federal funding in April, which it used to buy 60,000 test kits from South Korea and begin community-based testing. 

Those “have-you-had-symptoms?” questionnaires and body temperature checks now ubiquitous at schools and other public places have been a part of life on the islands since last April. 

Knowing earlier and more accurately who had the disease and how it was spreading enabled the Commonwealth to reopen in May and June, and the reopening was accompanied by a public information campaign to urge mask wearing, hand washing and social distancing. It leads all states and territories with 5.6 percent of its residents vaccinated; Washington is a distant second at 3 percent. 

Early testing, willingness to regulate and comply with regulations when necessary but also to relax regulations as conditions dictated has helped the Northern Marianas amass one of the best records for fighting COVID-19 in the world. 

It has had only two deaths from the disease, and the number of cases has been stuck at 113 since Mar. 28, despite predictions from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that the islands would suffer as many as 8,000 cases. The Centers for Disease Control gives the islands its lowest possible rating for COVID-19 danger.  

The problem is the world doesn’t know. Since the Obama administration forced the Northern Mariana Islands to gradually shift to the same minimum wage as the rest of the U.S. and thus destroyed the textile industry there, the economy has been based almost solely on tourism. The services sector now accounts for 95 percent of GDP and 88 percent of the workforce.  

Moreover, the closings shut down the beach resort cities, such as Saipan, last March at the height of the tourist season, when a half-million visitors per year — half from South Korea, 40 percent from China — converge to enjoy snorkeling, golf, history and gambling.  

One hotelier said her reservations went down from 95 percent to 23 percent in less than six weeks, forcing layoffs and the closure of three of her five restaurants. The government slashed pay and hours for public sector workers and reduced public schools to four days a week. 

The government is trying to get China to resume flights to the islands, has established quarantine areas on the islands and has set up bubble travel agreements with South Korea and Japan to promote a return to normalcy. 

Is it too early for a tourism slogan that says essentially: “Come visit – we’ve done a really good job of limiting covid exposure?” Gov. Ralph DLG. Torres already says as much in his speeches. There’s a lot of data to back it up. Maybe it’s time to try it on a wider audience.    

• Brian McNicoll is former senior writer for The Heritage Foundation and former director of communications for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.


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