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Cuba’s famed Varadero beach getting ready for tourists again

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VARADERO, Cuba (AP) — Little by little, vacationers are returning to one of the Caribbean’s most iconic beaches, which has been a nearly abandoned strip of glittering sand and turquoise seas for more than a year.

Varadero, the surfside star of Cuba’s crucial tourism industry, is slowly getting ready for Cuba’s planned Nov. 15 formal reopening to global visitors.

A handful of tourists, largely from Russia or Canada, have strolled across the 22-kilometer (13-mile) swath of sand in recent days, hunting out the scattering of restaurants that have reopened, dawdling over handicrafts at the few stands that have reappeared.

Medical personnel scan hotel visitors for signs of fever. Waiters, desk clerks and sellers of trinkets wear doubled masks as they cater to unmasked visitors in bathing suits. Largely empty tour buses run down the main boulevard.

At least some of the 60 or so hotels in Varadero remain closed, or pressed into service as quarantine centers. But others are already running.

About 100 people were staying at the 386-room Iberostar Selection Varadero on one day last week.

Juan Carlos Pujol, Cuba operations manager for the Spanish hotel chain, said the company had taken advantage of the pandemic closure to update restaurants or make adjustments for health measures, such as moving tables further apart or extending the reach of wi-fi to broader open expanses.

“We are very content and hopeful because now you can see the light at the end of the tunnel and we want to resume operations how and begin to recover what we had always had,” he said.

The pandemic was a terrible blow to tourism in Cuba, which depends heavily on the industry, especially after a series of ever-tighter embargo measures imposed by former U.S. President Donald Trump — and that have not been significantly relaxed under his successor, Joe Biden.

“I’ve had many months without work, feeling horrible,” said Lizet Aguilera, a 55-year-old weaver who recently reopened a souvenir stand that had been closed for 16 months.

Even so, she said she worries that she could be infected with COVID-19 while at work and bring it home.

“When I reach my house, before greeting anybody I take a bath,” she said.

Another vender, Richard Martin, estimated that only about 50 of the resort’s 5,000 artisans so far have returned to sell after months of hardship.

“It was very difficult,” he said. “The need, the fear, the scarcity. We have confidence in the vaccine. What remains is to open, to show that it functions.”

Cuba says it plans to have vaccinated 90% of its eligible population by the end of November— taking advantage of its unusually advanced biomedical industry to create the only locally developed COVID-19 vaccines in Latin America.

That has allowed officials to plan a gradual reopening to visitors, particularly in Varadero, some 150 kilometers (95 miles) east of Havana.

The town itself has only about 6,000 residents, but it provides thousands of jobs for people in nearby Cardenas, Boca de Camarioca and Matanzas and has some 20,000 hotel rooms — as well as a number of private residences that host visitors.

In 2019, Varadero received about 1.5 million of the 4.3 million tourists who came to Cuba— a number that collapsed when the pandemic hit and Cuba largely closed itself off to visitors.

The reopening will pose challenges: Cuba’s weak economy and U.S. sanctions complicate obtaining products to sell to tourists. A new monetary policy means many services must be paid for using foreign bank cards — though none that depend on U.S. banking institutions.

Andrea Rodríguez, The Associated Press

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CFL leaves door open for Argos' quarterback Bethel-Thompson playing in East final

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TORONTO — The CFL has left the door open to McLeod Bethel-Thompson playing in the East Division final Sunday.

The Toronto Argonauts starting quarterback was held out of practice and sent home Friday after attending the Toronto Raptors 97-93 home win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday night.

That violated the CFL’s COVID-19 protocol, which would’ve normally meant Bethel-Thompson having to quarantine for four days and provide two negative tests before being able to resume team activities.

But Toronto hosts the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the conference final Sunday afternoon at BMO Field.

The CFL announced Friday afternoon Bethel-Thompson will be allowed to play Sunday if he produces negative COVID testing following a 48-hour quarantine at his residence.

Argos Dexter McCoil, Charleston Hughes, Llevi Noel and Jeff Richards also attended the basketball game and will be subject to the same requirements as Bethel-Thompson.

Toronto (9-5) finished atop the East Division standings to secure home-field advantage for the conference final.

Bethel-Thompson was 7-2 as Toronto’s starter this season.

Both the Argos and Raptors are owned by Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment.

If Bethel-Thompson can’t play, Antonio Pipkin will start for Toronto on Sunday.

The six-foot-three, 225-pound Pipkin started Toronto’s season-ending 13-7 home loss to Edmonton on Nov. 16, completing 10-of-22 passes for 111 yards and an interception while rushing for 78 yards and a TD on nine carries.

Video of Bethel-Thompson holding his infant daughter at the NBA game was carried on the Argos’ Twitter account Thursday night but was no longer available Friday.

But it was present long enough for Hamilton receiver Brandon Banks to notice.

“Wow when I tried to go to raptors game the @cfl told me I couldn’t go!” Banks tweeted. “I ain’t snitching but shit fishy ! #Protocol #tier1.”

Bethel-Thompson also appeared on TSN’s broadcast of the Raptors-Bucks game.

TSN is the CFL’s broadcast partner.

“So lemme get this straight,” TSN’s Kayla Grey, who interviewed Bethel-Thompson during the broadcast, tweeted Friday. ” … a starting quarterback goes on a national broadcast to promote an East Final that he is now forced to miss because the league is forcing him to quarantine for going to a game to promote said East Final?

“Baby what a mess.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 3, 2021.

The Canadian Press

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Canada buying up to 1.5 million courses of oral antiviral drugs to fight COVID-19

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OTTAWA — Procurement Minister Filomena Tassi says Canada has signed agreements to buy up 1.5 million courses of oral antiviral treatment for COVID-19.

The government has signed up for an initial one million courses of antiviral treatment, once Health Canada endorses their safety and efficacy. 

Pfizer submitted a request for Health Canada approval earlier this week. 

Canada has also purchased 500,000 courses of Merck’s oral antiviral treatment for COVID-19, with the option to purchase another 500,000 once Health Canada approves the drug. 

The drugs are designed to block the enzyme essential for viral replication.

Merck’s clinical trial showed a 50 per cent reduced risk of hospitalization or death compared to placebo patients with mild or moderate COVID-19. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 3, 2021.

The Canadian Press

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