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The Tiny Caribbean Island Of Sint Maarten Faces Big Economic Problems From The Coronavirus

St. Marteen Prime Minister Silveria Jacobs has been praised for her administration's response to the coronavirus.
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Government of St. Marteen

Editor's Note: When colleges and universities closed in March most students returned home. Some had to fly back to their home countries. Among those who’ve had their semesters cut short: WFSU News intern Ralph Cantave, a Florida A&M University student and Sint Marteen native. Sint Maarten is a Caribbean island that’s divided between France and the Netherlands. It's also Tallahassee's "sister-city." Ever since the late 1970s the island's "bread and butter" has been its tourism industry. The island never fully recovered from Hurricanes Irma and Maria three years ago. Now its facing another headwind in the form of the coronavirus. Ralph reported this story from his home in Sint Maarten, an island under a tight lockdown.

Sint Maarten is a constituent state within the Kingdom of The Netherlands. It also borders the French territory Saint Martin, which is 21 square miles. Both France and the Netherlands agreed to divide and rule the island in 1648. Sint Maarten has been in constant negotiations with the Netherlands for financial assistance since 2017 when two powerful hurricanes hit the island. Recovery has been slow due to political instability and a change in financing conditions placed on Sint Maarten by its colonial head. Now it's facing more headwinds in the form of the coronavirus.

A Strict Lockdown Sends Residents Overseas, Scrambling

As numbers of coronavirus cases rose, the island's Prime Minister, Silveria Jacobs issued a mandatory two-week lockdown which has now been extended through May 10th.

“The restriction of a person’s freedom of movement remains one of the most effective methods of containing further COVID-19 infections," Jacobs said, explaining her decision. "[It also takes into] account the fact that infected persons may be asymptomatic but may infect others, and the limited amount of test kits that are available.”

At the onset of COVID-19, Jacobs said the virus would be "even more devastating" than the aftermath of the hurricanes. The island's high tourist season was cut short when nation's around the world began closing their borders. The Prime Minister issued a deadline for natives and residents to return home by March 22nd.

A woman with long braids smiles for a camera.
Credit Khalisha Halley
FAMU student Khalisha Halley says she feels safer back home in Sint Maartin amid the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S.

"Here we can control who fly in and out or who rides in and out by boat or by other ways of traveling," said Khalisha Halley, a Florida A&M University student who managed to get back to the island shortly before the deadline.

Halley says she feels safer in Sint Maarten right now than in the U.S. But also says upon her return, she initially felt stigmatized due to having to self-quarantine. Now, she's in lockdown along with other residents. 

"It feels like we’re on punishment even if it’s for our own good… you just want to get out the house."

Businesses Feel The Burden

"This is like another hurricane for us."

With the airports and harbor closed, hundreds of small business operators are wondering what options they have for creating new streams of income.

"This is like another hurricane for us," said Perla Rombley, a taxi driver and tour conductor. She said the taxi business has not been steady since the hurricane and the current pandemic has led to  uncertainty for operators. Rombley has taken to agriculture and selling eggs to sustain her family.

"I have a clientele for it and as of right now the chickens can't lay the eggs fast enough… so we have a backlog now. The problem is, the same $20 I’m making now today, I need to buy the chicken feed so they can lay the eggs."

The implemented lockdown has also impacted business operators outside of tourism. On April 16 and 17 adjustments were made to allow essential businesses to reopen, but that may be too late for some. 

“Our entire business is done on the road… we make our living by road running. If we’re not on the road really and truly we’re not making any money," said Darren Wilson, owner of  Quick2You Delivery, a full scale delivery and courier service.

 

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Credit Darren Wilson / facebook
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Darren Wilson is the owner of Quick2You delivery, in Sint. Maarten

“Every dollar that circulates in this economy can be traced back to tourism," Wilson said, adding that's not a good thing.  He believes over-dependence on tourism will lead to decline in businesses even those like his that are not directly in the tourist market. Rombley says the island needs to go back to it’s agricultural roots and a barter system. 

Following Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, many businesses began their operations with no aid from the government. This time, the island's finance minister has proposed a stimulus package to soften the blow of the island's loss of income. That money depends on provision from The Netherlands, which may be a grant or a loan. Sint Maarten has requested more than $100 million to fund direct relief programs such as payroll and income support.

The Sint Maarten Hospitality and Trade Association, the island's largest lobbyist group, is advocating for lower tariffs and endorses the proposed income support. In a survey of more than 600 companies done by the SHTA,  its estimated at least 11,000, 25% of the island’s population, could become unemployed.