Saipan Tribune’s top stories of 2020


A sobering timeline of COVID-19

COVID-19 was a ripple that started in Wuhan, China, that later engulfed the world and sent economies crashing. The timeline of the COVID-19 pandemic reads like a horror movie playbook:

-Dec. 31, 2019, to Jan. 5, 2020: Wuhan, China experiences an outbreak of “viral pneumonia.”

-Jan. 28: Gov. Ralph DLG Torres issues executive order suspending travel from mainland China to the CNMI.

-Jan. 29: Torres issues Executive Order 2020-01 declaring a state of a significant emergency, ordering the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp. to implement quarantine and preventative containment measures.

-March 5: Torres declares a price freeze.

-March 10: Torres names Warren Villagomez as chairman of the newly formed Governor’s COVID-19 Task Force.

-March 16: Torres declares a state of public health emergency in the CNMI.

-March 16: Schools and government offices were closed until further.

-March 24:  The Office of Insular Affairs awards CNMI $366,900 for personal protective equipment and hygienic supplies for first responders. Torres issues Enhanced Social Distancing Directive limiting businesses’ operating hours, prohibits gatherings of more than 10 people and closes all parks in the territory.

-March 28: First two cases of COVID-19 in the CNMI.

-March 30: The CNMI has its first COVID-19 death.

-April 7: The CNMI has its second COVID-19 death.

-Oct. 28, the Torres-Palacios administration turned over the Alternate Care Site at Kanoa Resort in Susupe to CHCC.

-Dec. 11: Federal Drug Administration gives emergency use authorization to the Pfizer/BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine. The CNMI received the Pfizer vaccine last Dec. 17.

-Dec. 31, today the CNMI has 135 days with no community transmission. (Justine Nauta)

COVID-19 brings CNMI economy to its knees

COVID-19 is so far the largest economic shock the world has experienced in decades, with the World Bank predicting a 5.2% contraction in global GDP in 2020. The CNMI picture is no less dire, with zero tourists, borders that are closed to international flights, hotels that are mostly closed, thousands who are jobless or working at reduced hours, and many businesses are shuttered, some of them permanently.

Saipan Chamber of Commerce president Velma Palacios said all businesses—large or small—are badly affected. “Take for example in the CNMI, the hotels, T-Galleria, airlines most have to close down or reduce their operations, which affects employees. …Businesses are struggling. …Everyone is trying to see how they can balance both health and safety with surviving in this economy,” she said.

The CNMI remains a one-industry economy and with the global travel industry at a standstill due to the pandemic, the domino effect in the CNMI has been devastating, to many tourism-related businesses, from hotels, restaurants, dive shops, car rentals, and travel agencies, to allied companies that support these businesses also closing shop. At the start of the pandemic, when the CNMI shut down its borders in mid-March, the streets were eerily silent. The saving grace for many businesses was the first tranche of COVID-19 relief law that allowed many to avail of the Paycheck Protection Program and other pandemic relief measures under the CARES Act. (Bea Cabrera)

Over 13,000 receive PUA benefits

As envisioned in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, the CNMI implemented an employment assistance program called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation programs to help those who lost their jobs, were furloughed, or had their work hours reduced due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since the program’s inception in the CNMI on June 17, the CNMI Department of Finance reported that over $170 million in PUA and FPUC benefits have been disbursed, with the CNMI Department of Labor disbursing payment to over 13,801 eligible claimants, over 70% of the number of applications the department has received since the program started. Over 5,000 claims have been flagged.

The CNMI DOL expects to process a second tranche of PUA and FPUC under a new COVID-19 relief bill.

There have been some complaints from people who claim not to have received their PUA payments yet or delays in releasing the money, prompting some minority lawmakers to hold a town hall meeting to solicit testimonies about the matter. (Kimberly A. Bautista)

Over $50M stimulus checks released

As provided under the CARES Act, each taxpayer in the CNMI received at least $1,200 as part of a stimulus package intended to help people through the COVID-19 pandemic, with the Department of Finance issuing about $55 million worth of stimulus checks to all CNMI residents. The total amount of funding allocated for the Economic Impact Payments for the CNMI was $54.7 million.

Stimulus checks provide up to $1,200 for every eligible individual, $2,400 for joint returns, and $500 for every qualifying child.

A second round of stimulus checks was signed into law by President Donald Trump earlier this week, but only gives $600 per eligible individual and $1,200 for joint returns. (Kimberly Bautista)

PSS suspends classes

The Public School System suspended all classes on Saipan, Tinian, and Rota starting March 16 in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. PSS initially aimed to resume classes in August but later announced that it will migrate to hybrid learning for the 2020-2021 semester. This is an educational model where some students attend class in-person, while others join the class virtually from home.

As PSS gets ready for their third semester on Feb. 3, 2021, parents are given a choice to have their child attend face-to-face classes or continue with remote classes. In order to comply with COVID-19 protocols of social distancing, half of the students will be attending face-to-face classes on Tuesday and Thursday, the other half will be online, and then vice-versa on Wednesday and Friday. Since there hasn’t been a community transmission of COVID-19, the capacity of students in the classroom was raised from 10 to 15 students.

As of Dec. 30, PSS is still implementing hybrid learning.

On March 25, private schools were already considering to start online learning. On March 27, Gov. Ralph DLG Torres suspended private schools from reopening.

On Sept. 11, four private schools were approved to reopen for in-person instruction: Isla Montessori, Eucon School, Mount Carmel School, and Seventh-Day Adventist School.

In August, Saipan International School, Saipan Community School, Grace Christian Academy, and Brilliant Star Montessori were allowed to reopen for in-person instruction.

As of Dec. 30, private schools are also doing hybrid learning. (Justine Nauta)

Out-of-the-ordinary elections

The Nov. 3 general elections was extraordinary, not only because of the pandemic that had voters wearing masks in casting their votes but also because a resurgent NMI Democratic Party gave the usually dominant Republican Party a credible show at the polls.

The Democratic Party under the leadership of Nola K. Hix gave voters more choices this year by fielding an 18-person roster for legislative seats or almost a full slate, which is the first time in over four decades for the party.

Nine of the Democratic Party’s 18 candidates were females, a historic first in the CNMI. Six of nine female candidates even prevailed as the Democratic Party and the Republican Party engaged in neck-and-neck races.

For the House race, eight Democrats, nine Republicans, and three independents won. Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan, an independent, ran unopposed for his seventh term as delegate.

If rumors are true that Rep. Ralph N. Yumul (R-Saipan) will later align with the Democratic Party, that will mean the majority in the coming 22nd House of Representatives this January will be a toss-up between the Republican Party and Democratic Party. (Ferdie de la Torre)

Propst resigns, but re-elected

Rep. Edwin K. Propst (Ind-Saipan) resigned last Oct. 1 as a representative for Precinct 1, less than two months after the Department of Public Safety said that it is looking into a complaint of sexual misconduct against him. Gov. Ralph DLG Torres then appointed Franklin R. Babauta (Ind-Saipan) to replace Propst.

Last Nov. 13, Babauta, a U.S. Army veteran and former Department of Public Safety official, took his oath of office as replacement for Propst. His term is short as members of the 22nd Legislature will take office this Jan. 13.

Meanwhile, representative-elect Celina R. Babauta (D-Saipan), who is the wife of Rep. Franklin Babauta, will represent the precinct after she landed second top voter among 14 candidates for Precinct 1.

Despite not campaigning for the post, Propst was re-elected after receiving the highest number of votes for Precinct 1. Although he has hinted in his posts in social media that he will be in the House again in the 22nd Legislature, he has yet to publicly announce this. (Ferdie de la Torre)

Cancellation of international flights

Sichuan Airlines, China Eastern Airlines, and Beijing Capital Airlines suspended flights to the CNMI in early February due to COVID-19 pandemic.

It was at this time when President Donald Trump signed a proclamation that suspended or limited the entry to the U.S. of persons who pose a risk of transmitting the virus, which originated from Wuhan, China.

The suspension of flights caused a serious financial impact on the Commonwealth Ports Authority and the entire Commonwealth economy in general.

CPA’s initial target date last July 15 to reopen the Francisco C. Ada/Saipan International Airport to international flights did not happen and the airport remains closed to international flights, except for the United Airlines flights from Guam and the interisland flights of Star Marianas Air.

Gov. Ralph DLG Torres disclosed that the partial resumption of tourism from South Korea to the CNMI under a “travel bubble” program will start this January under an arrangement with E-Land Group of Companies. The first batch of tourists is expected to arrive on Saipan on Jan. 8 via a charter flight. (Ferdie de la Torre)

Imperial Pacific’s many troubles

Imperial Pacific International (CNMI) LLC is in so much trouble—financial and legal.

IPI failed to pay the $15.5 million annual casino license fee by the deadline last Aug. 12 and the $3.1 million annual regulatory fee that was due last Oct. 1. IPI also failed to contribute $40 million in Community Benefit Fund money in 2018 and 2019 as required by the casino license agreement.

The Commonwealth Casino Commission executive director has so far filed five complaints against IPI over the non-payment plus other alleged violations.

It is also facing numerous lawsuits for non-payment of services.

IPI has admitted facing serious financial problems, citing that when COVID-19 pandemic arose in China, it began to negatively affect IPI’s business in December 2019. The pandemic forced the closure of IPI’s business entirely on March 17, 2020, and is still not allowed to reopen. (Ferdie de la Torre)

NMC suspends classes

The Northern Marianas College suspended face-to-face classes on Saipan, Tinian, and Rota mid-March. Majority of face-to-face classes transitioned to online platforms on March 18, with remaining classes transitioning in March 23.

NMC now offers 90% of its classes online. To help maximize student and employee safety, NMC’s fall semester were mostly online, with 90% of the 247 classes being taught virtually or online, and only 10% taught in a face-to-face class; this mix is what is referred to as a hybrid format.

No NMC staff or instructor was furloughed, though.  (Justine Nauta) 

PSS furloughs/unfurloughs teachers

The Public School System furloughed over 700 teachers at the start of the pandemic, but then again “unfurloughed” them as school year 2020-2021 approached in July. PSS recalled over 500 furloughed teachers last Aug. 11.  (Justine Nauta) 

NMC receives $1.8M in EDA funds; demolition project done

The U.S. Economic Development Administration awarded $10.7 million to the Northern Marianas College to build a three-story Workforce Development and Training Center on the site where some NMC buildings used to stand.

NMC announced that the demolition was completed last Dec. 17. Now the college will make way for the 20,158- square foot, three-story building that will be built on the site, which will house NMC’s nursing and business programs and Center for Innovation. (Justine Nauta) 

CUC cuts CHCC’s power

The Commonwealth Utilities Corp. followed through with its threat to disconnect the Commonwealth Health Center’s power supply for six hours every day last Sept. 8 after it failed to pay $5 million by Aug. 6.

The Torres-Palacios administration then met with CHCC officials and committed $2.5 million in an initial payment to CUC; however, CUC still went through with the disconnection.

Last Nov. 12, Greg Cruz, CUC chief financial officer, stated that CHCC has been doing well with paying their monthly bill. Adding that CHCC is up to date with their payment, however, as of Nov. 12, the administration has paid their share of $150,000 for September and October, but they have not paid for November. (Justine Nauta) 

Rota Mayor acquitted of all charges

After a two-year long legal battle, Rota Mayor Eifraim Atalig was acquitted of all charges filed against him in the U.S. District Court for the NMI.

The corruption case of Atalig and his common-law wife, Evelyn Atalig, that has dragged on for two years came to an end on Aug. 26, with federal court jurors unanimously finding the Ataligs innocent on all counts.

The men and women of the jury entered a unanimous decision acquitting the Ataligs of one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, wire fraud, and two counts of false statement.

The Ataligs were indicted for conspiracy to commit wire fraud, wire fraud, and false statement back in 2018 with the trial commencing and ending on August 2020. (Kimberly A. Bautista)

Saipan Tribune

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