HAVANA (Reuters) – Cuba’s government said on Monday it was banning Cubans from leaving the country, closing schools and suspending interregional public transport in its fight to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Havana started to ramp up measures last Friday when it barred foreign tourists from entering the Communist-ruled Caribbean island nation that relies heavily on tourism for hard currency.

Cuba has so far confirmed 40 cases of the virus that originated in China and has since spread worldwide, including a 61-year-old Italian tourist who died.

“We have decided to regulate the departure of all our compatriots from the national territory for a simple reason: to look after their health, that of their relatives, their neighbors and colleagues,” Cuban Prime Minister Manuel Marrero said in a roundtable discussion on state television.

Cubans and foreign nationals who live in Cuba will be able to return the island but will have to be isolated in camping facilities, college dormitories and other institutions designated by the state for 14 days, he added.

There are currently 500,000 Cuban residents who are abroad for personal and work reasons, he said.

“All Cubans who arrive including those suspected of harboring the illness will be received, isolated, treated and cured if the illness is detected, but we cannot encourage trips,” he said.

Two of those infected with the coronavirus in Cuba, a country of 11 million people, are in a critical state, according to the Health Ministry. Both had pre-existing conditions, including diabetes.

In total, 1,036 people are hospitalized for epidemiological surveillance, with 531 suspected of having the coronavirus. A further 37,788 are being monitored in their homes by their physicians.

Marrero said it was partly because of public concerns about hygiene and crowding in schools that led the government to suspend classes for three weeks. They will resume on April 20 after spring break, depending on the status of the coronavirus outbreak.

“I feel more secure now knowing they will be at home and not exposed to the virus,” Susana Valdes, 37, a mother of two, told Reuters. “It’s definitely better for my son who has asthma so is particularly vulnerable.”

Cuba was also suspending interregional transport, which 22,000 people use each day, and considering what to do with urban transport, used by 2 million Cubans daily, Marrero said.

None of the 32,574 tourists still in Cuba would be allowed to leave their hotels starting on Tuesday, with all excursions banned, he said.


(Reporting by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Peter Cooney)