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A travel influencer says visiting Antigua after it reopened felt 'so safe' that she's already planned a second trip to the Caribbean

INSIDER logoINSIDER 7/13/2020 shoeller@businessinsider.com (Sophie-Claire Hoeller)
a woman posing for a picture: Travel influencer Shakeemah Smith recently returned from Antigua. @anniemcfierce © @anniemcfierce Travel influencer Shakeemah Smith recently returned from Antigua. @anniemcfierce
  • Travel influencer Shakeemah Smith, who says she has been to 51 countries solo, recently returned from a week in Antigua.
  • She said she researched destinations that had low infection rates, required visitors to present a negative COVID-19 test upon arrival, and didn't require a mandatory 14-day quarantine for all travelers.  
  • Smith told Insider she loved her time on the Caribbean island and was impressed with its health and safety measures, including mobile sinks at a supermarket and hand sanitizer outside her Airbnb.
  • Currently, nonessential travel is not recommended in many places, including the US, where the Centers for Disease Control warns against it. 
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Travel influencer Shakeemah Smith recently returned from Antigua, one of the two main islands that make up the Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda, which reopened to tourists in early June.

Soon, she's off to Saint Lucia.

Smith told Insider that she feels safe traveling to the Caribbean, where there have been far fewer cases of COVID-19 than in the US.

At the time of writing, data from the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center show that Antigua and Barbuda has had 74 cases and three coronavirus-related deaths, while St. Lucia has had 22 confirmed cases and no deaths.

Meanwhile, Smith's home state of New Jersey has had 175,298 total cases and 13,532 confirmed deaths, according to the state's COVID-19 information hub

"So actually, where am I safer?" Smith said. "Definitely not in America."

Smith, who says she's traveled to 51 countries solo, researched destinations before her trip 

a person standing in front of a door: Smith said she enjoyed her time in the Caribbean. Shakeemah Smith © Shakeemah Smith Smith said she enjoyed her time in the Caribbean. Shakeemah Smith

Smith — who posts photos of her travels for her 24.3k followers on her Instagram account, and who teaches a course on how to travel alone safely, as well as on a budget — said she looked for destinations that had low rates of infection and required a negative COVID-19 test from travelers upon landing.

"I focused on the Caribbean first because I looked at the statistics and it looked like Central America and the Caribbean were the least impacted," Smith said, adding that she then honed in on places that didn't require a mandatory 14-day quarantine for all travelers.

"Another thing that I liked about Antigua was it required you to come with a negative COVID test taken within 48 hours, which made me feel like 'OK, whoever they let in the country has tested negative,'" Smith said.

Now, travelers to Antigua and Barbuda are required to either arrive with a negative COVID-19 test taken within a week of traveling, or take a test at the airport, according to Visit Antigua Barbuda's travel advisory page, in addition to completing a passenger registration form and traveler accommodation form. A 15-minute test at the airport costs $100 with results ready within 48 to 96 hours, during which time travelers must "limit their movements," according to the travel advisory page. Should travelers test positive they will need to quarantine in a government-operated facility, according to Carib Journal.

Smith said her doctor initially told her that she would need to wait five days for the results of a COVID-19 test, but added that he expedited the process when she sent him a copy of her plane ticket, as that made the test a travel requirement.

Smith said she took the nasal swab coronavirus test at a drive-thru clinic in New Jersey, on June 18, and flew to Antigua on June 21, where she stayed for a week.

a girl in a pool of water: She loved the people in Antigua. Shakeemah Smith © Shakeemah Smith She loved the people in Antigua. Shakeemah Smith

Smith's trip took her from New York to Miami, and from Miami to Antigua and back

She said New York City's JFK airport was very quiet, and said social distancing was therefore easy. According to Smith, her flight from New York to Miami was mostly empty, but she was shocked to find that her flight from Miami to Antigua was packed.

"Contrary to popular belief, American Airlines does not block out a middle seat. Let me just confirm that that did not happen," she said of her flight. "It was definitely a full flight."

Business Insider's David Slotnick reported that American Airlines announced in late June that it would stop blocking middle seats on its flights from July 1. Before that date, however, American Airlines said it would block 50% of all middle seats.  Despite most US airlines claiming to limit capacity on flights, many are flying with filled seats, according to The New York Times.

a group of people sitting around a car: Her flight from Antigua to Miami was packed. Shakeemah Smith © Shakeemah Smith Her flight from Antigua to Miami was packed. Shakeemah Smith

The only difference Smith said she noticed was that there was no regular food and beverage service on her flight. Instead, she said passengers were handed a paper bag containing a water bottle and a bag of chips upon boarding. Most people were sanitizing their seats and the area around them, and wearing masks, which are required on American Airlines flights.

"They even told you before you boarded, they said anybody who refuses to wear a mask will be denied boarding and will not be allowed on any future American Airlines flight," Smith said.

Despite the recent spike in coronavirus cases in Florida, Smith said that she didn't feel unsafe traveling through Miami.

"I had on a face shield, double masks, gloves, and I had Lysol wipes in my bag to sanitize my seat, the window, the seat belt, and so on," she said. "And because I had on so much protective equipment, I didn't feel that I was putting anyone's health at risk either."

She said she didn't feel she was putting people at risk at her destination, either, in part because Antigua made sure those arriving on the island had a negative COVID-19 test.

"There are some countries that are so desperate for tourism revenue that they have reopened borders and no proof of a negative COVID test is required. That's a huge indicator that revenue takes precedence over the lives of locals and tourists visiting the country. It also increases the likelihood that travelers are entering into countries and spreading the virus," Smith said. "Antigua, on the other hand, made sure that travelers were COVID negative at the time of entry, provided an additional COVID test, and required [visitors] to wear PPE."

Smith said she was pleasantly surprised by Antigua's health and safety regulations

a person standing next to a bag of luggage: Airport employees in Antigua were fully geared up. Shakeemah Smith © Shakeemah Smith Airport employees in Antigua were fully geared up. Shakeemah Smith

According to Smith, the lines moved quickly, and a 6-foot distance between passengers was strictly enforced. Airport employees were all wearing what she described as "surgical gowns" in addition to masks.

Besides regular immigration forms, she said she also had to fill in a health declaration form asking coronavirus-related questions and present her negative COVID-19 test before proceeding through immigration. Travelers without a test were led to another room where they were able to get tested.

a close up of text on a white background: Smith said she had to fill in a health declaration form asking coronavirus-related questions. Shakeemah Smith © Shakeemah Smith Smith said she had to fill in a health declaration form asking coronavirus-related questions. Shakeemah Smith

Smith said the whole process went surprisingly fast, and that she also had to agree, verbally, to wear a mask in public and adhere to social-distancing regulations.

She also said that she saw "the trays being sanitized and wiped down after each person took their belongings from each tray," at Antigua's security checkpoint.

a group of people walking on a sidewalk: Social distancing was strictly enforced at the Antigua airport, according to Smith. Shakeemah Smith © Shakeemah Smith Social distancing was strictly enforced at the Antigua airport, according to Smith. Shakeemah Smith

Smith loved her time on the Caribbean island

"It's amazing. It's full of beautiful people, with the most beautiful beaches," she said.

She added that an 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew was still in place during her visit, though it didn't bother her.

a box on a table: She said patrons were often required to sanitize their hands upon entry. Shakeemah Smith © Shakeemah Smith She said patrons were often required to sanitize their hands upon entry. Shakeemah Smith

Smith said she was impressed overall with how social distancing and safety precautions were being enforced. She said that every restaurant and café she visited had hand sanitizer that it required patrons to use upon entry, and added that her Airbnb had hand sanitizer next to its door and asked that she sanitize her hands before entering. According to Smith, the local supermarket had mobile sinks stationed outside, with security personnel enforcing handwashing before allowing customers inside.

"Everywhere you went, even if you were at breakfast, there was someone telling you 'no, go back outside, wash your hands, come back in,'" she said. "It felt so safe."

a sign on the side of a building: Even her Airbnb had a sanitizer outside its door. Shakeemah Smith © Shakeemah Smith Even her Airbnb had a sanitizer outside its door. Shakeemah Smith

She said that she heard that the nearby Sandals resort was at 80% capacity at the time of her visit. But most bars and restaurants — which had outdoor dining only at the time — were pretty empty.

While some restaurants now allow for indoor dining, tourists are advised against eating inside. Beaches and water sports seem to be business as usual, as long as people are able to maintain social distancing and wear masks when they can't keep a 6-foot distance from others. (Masks are mandatory in public.)

a person standing in a room: There were mobile sinks outside the local supermarket. Shakeemah Smith © Shakeemah Smith There were mobile sinks outside the local supermarket. Shakeemah Smith

She said her flights back were reasonably full, but not as crowded as the Miami to Antigua leg had been

Smith said the only thing she had to do upon her return to JFK was fill out a form that asked, among other things, where travelers have been in the last 14 days, and whether they've been to Texas or Florida.

Spending more than twenty-four hours in states that are currently spiking will require a 14-day quarantine upon return to the tristate area, but since Smith's layover in Miami was only a few hours long, this didn't apply to her.

a man standing in a room: She said she observed several sanitization measures at airports. Shakeemah Smith © Shakeemah Smith She said she observed several sanitization measures at airports. Shakeemah Smith

While domestic and international travel isn't recommended in the US, experts say plane travel isn't necessarily riskier than being in other public spaces

Currently, nonessential travel is still not recommended in many places, including the US, where the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) warns against it, so if you decide to travel, follow the CDC's recommendations in the Global COVID-19 Pandemic Notice

That said, some experts say plane travel could be less risky than you might think. The CDC states on its website that "most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes."

However, the biggest danger with air travel is the difficulty in maintaining distance from other passengers — especially on a full flight. Lines outside of the plane and eating at a shared table in a terminal restaurant also pose risks.

While Smith is aware of these risks, she personally feels safe enough being diligent about wearing her mask and gloves, and washing her hands frequently, and says she feels better about being in a country with significantly lower infection rates than the US.

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Gallery: 15 destinations that are reopening to American tourists (INSIDER)

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