I Traveled to Jamaica During COVID-19 — Here's What It Was Really Like

"The shores of Jamaica are healing, the people and the weather are warm and the spices are as flavorful as ever."

Rondel Holder in Jamaica
Photo: Courtesy of Rondel Holder

Editor's Note: Those who choose to travel are strongly encouraged to check local government restrictions, rules, and safety measures related to COVID-19 and take personal comfort levels and health conditions into consideration before departure.

This summer, I road-tripped until the wheels of my car almost fell off. Based in Brooklyn, New York, I've driven to the Hamptons, the Catskills, and beach towns in Delaware, Massachusetts, and New Jersey over the past few months. Though these somewhat local trips provided me with a much-needed change of scenery and open space after being in strict quarantine for months due to the coronavirus pandemic, my wanderlust spirit still craved more.

Prior to 2020, I was accustomed to being on a flight at least four times a month, and this year, I had essentially not been anywhere. So, in August, with New York City's COVID-19 rates being consistently low and with the knowledge of how to protect myself and others, I looked at the list of open countries to travel and began my research.

I was originally scheduled to travel to Jamaica in April, but like many travelers around the world, I had to postpone my trip. Thankfully, I still had my flight and hotel credits for my original vacation and noticed that the island was open to receiving U.S. travelers — all the more reason that now was the perfect time for my deferred island vacation.

Jamaica felt like the perfect first international trip post-lockdown. I wanted to be close enough to home, in case there was an emergency and I needed to fly back quickly, and also have a relatively short flight to manage my anxiety flying and comfort wearing a mask for an extended time.

Based on my research on Jamaica's protocol for managing the pandemic, I was confident that I would feel comfortable and safe on my trip. I set off for a nine-day vacation split between Negril and Montego Bay.

Pre-travel Process

Jamaica requires a negative COVID-19 PCR lab test within 10 days of traveling. Additionally, days before travel, visitors must fill out an entry application and upload proof of your negative test on Jamaica's tourism site and wait to receive your approval letter via email. The process is supposed to take no more than two days, but for me, it took four days as they were backlogged with applications. I received my approval letter the day before my flight.

Airport and Flight

When I got to JFK Airport, it felt like I never missed a beat. I walked through the familiar corridors slowly to see if anything had changed. It wasn't as much of a ghost town as some people described it months ago, but it definitely wasn't as crowded as I was used to. Social distancing was implemented. All staff wore masks and most who were customer-facing also had on gloves and face shields. I was required to wear a mask at all times other than eating and for facial recognition when checking my passport.

Passengers were now called to board from the back of the plane to the front. The airline kept their word about social distancing in the seating arrangements, leaving every other row vacant. Staff and passengers wore masks at all times in-flight. I was provided hand wipes and my snack and water were served in a Ziploc bag for less contact.

Current Restrictions

Jamaica has a region open to tourists that it calls its "Resilient Corridor." This includes most of its coast including popular vacation destinations like Montego Bay, Negril, and Ocho Rios, but not its capital, Kingston, or the surrounding inland areas. If you wish to go beyond their Resilient Corridor, you are first asked to quarantine for 14 days on the island.

When I visited, there was also a temporary two-week 8 p.m. curfew to help manage evening gatherings that have been suspected to cause outbreaks. I didn't have many plans for nightlife, but this did impact dining as many restaurants took their last customers at 6 p.m. and closed promptly at 7 p.m. to allow their staff to return home by curfew.

Landing in Jamaica

I received a temperature check by local staff as soon as I arrived in Jamaica. I was then guided to a health screening where I was asked about my experiences in the last 14-days, observed for any symptoms, once again showed my entry authorization from Jamaica tourism, and advised on the COVID-19 protocol within Jamaica.

I was also prompted to download an app from the Ministry of Health, where I would receive ongoing updates about the COVID-19 status in Jamaica and also have our location tracked, ensuring that I was staying within their Resilient Corridor.

Experience During Our Travels

On the ground, I got the usual warm welcome to Jamaica. The country's economy depends greatly on tourism, so it has been hit extremely hard by the pandemic. All vendors were so grateful for our visit and patronage.

In Negril, about 50% of the hotels, restaurants, and vendors were temporarily closed due to slow traffic, but the vast majority of Montego Bay was open and thriving. Most attractions such as Rick's Café and bamboo rafting at Martha's Brae are open and accepting tourists.

Everywhere we went the majority of locals wore masks. I wore a mask at all times except in pools and beaches. Every bar, restaurant, and hotel required temperature checks, hand washing, and sanitizing before entering, and again before signing your check. Hotels sanitized and disinfected thoroughly. I often saw my hotels disinfecting beach and pool furniture which gave us additional comfort. And it was much easier to social distance in Jamaica than in New York. I never felt too confined or close to anyone.

Personally, I got everything that I wanted and needed out of my trip to Jamaica and would do it again in a heartbeat. I missed the tastes of the food, hues of the waters, sounds of the accents, and overall immersion in the culture. I always felt as safe as possible and was very impressed by Jamaica's management of COVID-19.

Traveling in 2020 is a bit different than before. It's not as free-spirited as it once was. Where I used to just book a trip and go, now there are thoughts about protocol, policies, curfews, and limitations. But the shores of Jamaica are healing, the people and the weather are warm and the spices are as flavorful as ever. It was a restorative trip for this wanderluster who has missed being somewhere other than home for months.

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