WEAR MASKS or face jail.
The Prime Minister on Saturday said by Tuesday there will be legal backing to make the wearing of masks in public gatherings mandatory, as the country now has community spread. Currently a breach in the covid19 regulations is punishable by either a $50,000 fine or six months in jail.
Addressing a news conference at the Diplomatic Centre, St Ann's on Saturday, Dr Rowley said: “We cannot now continue to allow a significant proportion of the population to be unmasked when we do know that in managing the virus on this high concentration in the population, the wearing of face masks is a useful and effective tool in helping us restrain the virus. The time of persuasion has now passed and we will take such action.
“We are consulting with the Attorney General (Faris Al-Rawi) at the moment and within the next 48 hours, or thereabouts, we will indicate what action we will take with respect to the mandatory use of face masks. We are going to find legislative arrangements which will allow action to be taken against (any) person in the national population who insists on not wearing a face mask in public, because we are now convinced that they are endangering the entire population, and, therefore, we will cease to rely on suasion and move to have it become an offence to not cover your nose and mouth in a public place.”
In response to questions, technical director of the epidemiology division at the Ministry of Health Dr Avery Hinds said the lax wearing of masks contributed to the increased cases. Addressing concerns that the lead-up to the August 10 general election caused increased cases, Hinds said none of the new cases were traced to the political campaign.
He said most people said they were at home when asked where they could have picked up the virus.
“Actual feedback that we got from many of the close contact situations, when we did ask about mask wearing, we did find that there was lax compliance with mask-wearing in situations where indoor transmission was noted. The compliance with masks helps to reduce that risk.”
Hinds explained: “What people do when you ask them where they went, they tell you they were at home or by family. There is a fair amount of reticence when asked about gatherings and activities. During further questions they 'recall' being in other places.”
Responding to the question, Rowley said he would be surprised if gatherings during campaign motorcades did not contribute to the increase. He added that the measure in place to curb the spread could not have been introduced before the election because it was during the campaign that increased cases were noted.
“It is not as a result of elections. If it was, then the election is behind us now. I want to say to you, if I was the first person in this country who mentioned the postponement of elections, you would have written so many stories opposing it and accusing me of all kind of things,” he said when asked why the election was not postponed.
Rowley said the public health legislation “may not be able to pick up everybody" but the ordinance will be in place. He added: “Of course, you can avoid it completely by simply doing what we have been asking you to do for three months. And also we will ask, as far as you are able to, stay home, avoid persons who you have no real aim to be in contact with.”
The Health Ministry’s covid19 update as of Saturday evening revealed the number of cases stood at 497, an increase of 23, with 13 being contacts of recent positive cases. On Saturday morning, there were 48 new cases with 29 pending epidemiological investigation. Eighteen were contacts of recent positive patients, and one person tested positive at a private lab. In total, the ministry's figures revealed 71 more people have the virus. On Friday, it reported two deaths, the first since April, which took the total to ten.
Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Dr Roshan Parasram said as a result of the increased figures, the country has moved from clusters to community spread, as he recommended to the Pan American Health Organisation, which will recommend to the World Health Organisation, to list TT as having community spread.
As a result of the community spread, Rowley announced rollbacks on previous relaxed measures.
These include stopping in-house dining and drinking, along with contact sports, and closing all teaching institutions, beaches, rivers and all places of worship, water parks, casinos and members clubs and cinemas.
There will be no gatherings of more than five people. Weddings and funerals and similar events are back to ten people while maxis and taxis are to operate at 50 per cent capacity. There will be restrictions on travel between Trinidad and Tobago.
The closure of schools may last until December 31, Rowley said, adding that the new education minister will have to address that immediately upon being sworn in. Rowley said all the other measures will be enforced for 28 days beginning on Monday. While schools are closed, the SEA exam will take place on August 20, with all prearranged protocols still in place.
“The decision that had to be taken now is to prevent the numbers from accelerating. It is very easy, based on the numbers we have now, to get to a larger number in a short space of time if we don’t seek to push back the virus now. Today we have to act so that the situation will not get worse,” Rowley said.
The PM added that come Monday, there will be a discussion of financial assistance to those affected, as the government is still paying out grants from when the economy was on lockdown between March to June.
“There is not a bottomless pit of money. We are in a worse position now financially than March and we don’t want people rushing on Monday making applications. Coming in the week, or two, we will look at it and make assistance available if need be.”
Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh appealed to citizens not to grab a last drink and flock to bars. He said people should avoid private parties at their homes as it would be dangerous to them and their families.
He said the country has sufficient test kits, 20,360 in hand, with access to regional test kits from CARPHA. There are also 29,000 swabs for testing with more coming in weekly to deal with the community spread.