Two men in white overalls greet passengers at the port of Montevideo. They disinfect the bags of the guests before sending them off for a Covid-19 test that will be analysed on a laboratory on board the ferry bound for Buenos Aires. The verdict determines who will be able to travel.
Next to the image of a smiling model promoting tax-free sales on board, Carlos De Palacio narrows his eyes as the nurse pushes the swab deep into his nose. That sample, along with those of around 40 passengers who hope to travel this Friday, move two rooms along, where a team of biochemists work against the clock to have results ready in two hours.
Until then, the passengers will have to wait in a salon, and whoever tests positive cannot even step on the boat.
The test will be repeated for 150 travellers at the Argentine end of the Buquebus gerry route, to prevent those infected from crossing the river border between the two countries.
The initiative has emerged to protect Uruguay's impressive achievements in the fight against the coronavirus and to lower the suffering of its larger neighbour, where cases are on the increase in the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Area (AMBA).
Although it's an unusual approach, it's not the first time the pandemic has prompted the experts at the Uruguay's Technological Laboratory to take to the water – back in April, they assisted hundreds of passengers and crew from the Australian cruise ship Greg Mortimer, which docked off the coast.
Last week, President Luis Lacalle Pou's government ordered anyone arriving from abroad to undertake a Covid-19 test, which must come back negative, with another repeated seven days later.
The assembly of the floating laboratory on a Buquebus ferry –– the company that connects the two capitals –– arrived earlier, after controversy emerged in the eake of two infected Argentines who entered Uruguay in June.
Javier Santomé, captain of the Buquebus fleet, explains that prior to the new set up, if there was a positive case, "it was detected if he had a fever on board."
Now, with the pre-boarding test, "we ensure that 100 percent of the passengers who are on the ship will be healthy," he added.
The advantage, according to Santomé, is especially pertinent on the Argentine side of the River Plate, where most passengers board and carry the highest risk, given the number of cases in Uruguay's neighbouring country.
In recent weeks, the relative freedom of movement in Uruguay and low case numbers have attracted many Argentine visitors, some of whom have taken to seek refuge in areas such as Punta del Este, the famous tourist and investment destination.
Despite everything, 57-year-old Evangelina Vera says she is happy to return home. She arrived in Uruguay in March for a grandson's birthday and stayed on. "It is good to know that you travel healthy, but I know that when I arrive I will have to be locked up," she said.
'Dose of normality'
In his three weeks on Uruguayan land, Carlos De Palacio, a 25-year-old with dual nationality, attended his sister's wedding of a ceremony and a family dinner.
"I had a dose of normality. I also ran down the waterfront promenade, went to a restaurant and went shopping. That helped me," says the young man, minutes before departing to head back home to the lockdown in the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Area (AMBA).
While Argentina has recorded more than 100,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and close to 2,000 deaths, Uruguay has fewer than 1,000 infections and just 29 deaths. Without a compulsory quarantine period and lockdown, the country of just 3.4 million people has managed to resume face-to-face classes in schools and universities and even enjoy activities that remain banned in Argentina, such as indoor live music.
Buquebus resumed its services, running weekly, after being forced to shut down operations in March. It has retained 60 percent of its 900 workers thanks to unemployment insurance, according to company sources, who are evaluating passing the cost of testing onto passengers.
Silvia Tretalance, a 77-year-old Argentine retiree, arrived in Montevideo on the infected cruise-ship back in April and is waiting to return to her home in Buenos Aires.
"I greet my relatives by video call, because one must be responsible and care about others. And that works here," she says.
by Luján Scarpinelli, AFP