By Giff Johnson
In the face of the Covid-19 coronavirus spread worldwide, the Marshall Islands on Thursday extended its "total suspension of international travelers coming into (the country) via air travel until May 5," according to a new travel advisory issued late Thursday.
It also ramps up restrictions on fishing vessels following an incident earlier this week with fishermen coming ashore before they had met the 14-day quarantine period.
"Because Covid-19 is a national threat these requirements will come into affect immediately," said the new Covid-19 travel advisory issued by Health Secretary Jack Niedenthal, following a meeting of the country's National Disaster Committee and the Cabinet on Thursday.
The Marshall Islands remains one of a few countries globally without a confirmed case of the coronavirus.
The government has also banned all outbound government-funded travel since the end of January.
The travel ban has been aided by both Nauru Airlines and United Airlines suspending regular service.
Prior to March 20, United provided four weekly round trip flights connecting the Marshall Islands with Guam and Hawaii - now both Covid-19 hotspots.
United has scheduled one roundtrip flight for the Marshall Islands for April 13-14, its only scheduled flight for the month.
Aircraft are still allowed to land at Majuro and Kwajalein for refueling, but are required to abide by "no human contact" protocols.
In addition to updating its travel advisory, the Ministry of Health and Human Services has been conducting outreach sessions with church and community leaders to prepare people for actions that will need to be enforced if Covid-19 is confirmed in the Marshall Islands.
The new travel advisory expands controls on fishing vessels entering Majuro, which prior to the Covid-19 pandemic was the busiest tuna transshipment port in the world.
Fishing boats that visited a Covid-19 infected country or territory are "temporarily suspended from entering Marshall Islands ports until further notice," said Niedenthal.
Fishing vessels that are based in the Marshall Islands are allowed to return to homeport but must spend 14 days at sea prior to entry.
Earlier, Majuro-based fishing vessels were allowed in earlier than 14 days, with the requirement that all crew stay on board until they met a 14-day quarantine period.
This was changed, however, after earlier this week several Marshallese fisherman aboard a locally-based purse seiner that arrived after 11 days from its last port of call went straight to shore to their families' homes.
On Monday, Majuro Atoll Local Government police tracked down two of the Marshallese fishermen off a locally-based vessel and returned them to the vessel, reminding them, the agents and the vessel of the 14-day quarantine requirement.
"We put them back on the boat," said Niedenthal of the first two fishermen who had broken the 14-day quarantine. "They came from Kiribati and had been at sea 11 days."
"We are taking all measures to ensure that there will be no skipping to shore," said Majuro Mayor Ladie Jack.
"We've had meetings last weekend with all relevant agencies to tackle this concern. We've mobilized our peace officers and stationed patrols on all ports and patrol boats to monitor all areas."
Meantime, 18 local students who were flown home from Chuuk state in Micronesia after their school, the Jesuit-run Xavier High School, shut down last month completed their 14-day quarantine period without incident earlier this week, said Niedenthal.
The high school students stayed in a specially established isolation facility at a rural campus of the College of the Marshall Islands in Majuro.
Container ships and fuel tankers also must meet a 14-day quarantine period at sea before arriving in ports in the Marshall Islands.