More than 12,500 left Cayman as border slammed shut

More than 12,500 people left the Cayman Islands in the last week before the airport closure – a net loss of more than 8,000 people.

That includes a mix of tourists whose vacations were cut short and residents who decided to pack up and leave as the economic reality of the coronavirus crisis started to become clear.

Just over 4,000 people, mostly returning residents and students, arrived back on island in the same time period. This means that these 4,000 people should, by law, be in isolation, either in government facilities or at home along with their families. 

The statistics, released by the Ministry of Employment and Border Control in response to a request from the Cayman Compass, show the extent of the exodus before Cayman’s borders slammed shut on 22 March.

Passenger check in for the final flights out of Cayman on Sunday
Passenger check in for the final flights out of Cayman on Sunday, 22 March. – Photo: Stephen Clarke

The biggest exit day was Saturday, 21 March, when 2,329 people departed the island.

It is still not clear exactly how many residents left the island because of lost jobs in hotels and restaurants and other impacted businesses. 

At a press conference last week, Premier Alden McLaughlin estimated that Cayman’s population may have dropped by as much as 6,000 as a consequence of the coronavirus crisis.

Asked about the current population figure, he said, “I think the number is somewhere around 64,000. It was very close to 70,000 before all of this started.”

While many in the tourism industry have lost jobs, a significant number of employers have continued to pay their staff despite closing their doors.

How long that will continue, with no imminent prospect of the borders being reopened, is a concerning question for many business owners and their employees.

Some who decided not to leave before the airport closure may be reconsidering that decision now, with the crisis escalating daily.

Chris Kirkconnell, of Kirk Freeport, said only a handful of his staff had left the island despite eight stores closing and generous repatriation packages being offered to work permit holders.

But as Cayman moved from partial closure to total shutdown and the longevity of the crisis became clear, he said, some were reconsidering that decision.

He believes the same is true across the tourism industry.

“I think there probably will be more people that do look to leave once the airports open up again,” he said.

“Several people were considering it but couldn’t get on a flight or couldn’t get through the right airport to get home.”

A British Airways flight is being arranged next week to allow people who need to get to the UK to leave Cayman.

Kirkconnell believes there may need to be further flights if the border remains closed for some time. He said it would be impossible to open up to the US with the virus still spreading.

“I think some people initially chose to stay and once they saw that everything was shutting down and that this could last a while, people are looking for other options,” he said.

Up to now, Kirk Freeport has not had to lay anyone off. 

Multiple other businesses have let staff go and some are considering how long they can afford to pay salaries without revenue coming in.

Woody Foster, president of the Chamber of Commerce, said Cayman’s economy was likely to be hurting for a very long time.

He said it was unclear at the moment exactly how many people had lost jobs or chosen to leave the island, but he said tourism businesses would not be able to keep full employment for an extended period of closure.

“The entire tourist market has gone,” he said, “so for all intents and purposes, they have no money coming in, yet they are paying full salaries, healthcare and pension. Everybody is doing everything they can to support their staff, but that won’t be able to continue indefinitely.”

Full coverage: Coronavirus

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  1. Kudos to those companies that have continued to pay staff salaries even though their businesses are closed.

    This is in contrast to the USA where over 3 million are now on the unemployment rolls. At the same time they were fired they also mostly lost company health insurance; at the time they most need it.

    Caymankind at its finest.