Business and tourism leaders are preparing for the possibility that Cayman could be closed to visitors until next year.
Speaking to the Cayman Compass in a live debate about the future of the island’s economy, industry figureheads warned that many businesses are facing closure.
More than 80% of Cayman Islands Tourism Association member businesses are currently closed, according to a survey by the organisation.
Some, like the Royal Palms beach bar, have shut their doors temporarily in the hope of re-opening in better times. Others, like the Copper Falls Steakhouse, have announced permanent closures.
Government advised Tuesday that the airport will likely be closed through 30 May at least.
Many in the tourism industry believe it will be much longer.
Theresa Leacock-Broderick, president of the CITA, said the reality was setting in that visitors may not be rolling out towels on Seven Mile Beach or spending money in island hotels, restaurants and attractions until 2021.
That means tough decisions for businesses about how to survive in the interim.
“Across the board, people are now dealing with the reality that this is a longer-term situation,” she said.
With the coronavirus raging through the US, there is no confidence that it will be safe to open the island’s borders in the medium term.
Chamber of Commerce CEO Wil Pineau, said, “Our biggest trading partner, the United States, is sick right now and getting sicker.”
He said that would have impacts on every aspect of Cayman’s economy for six months or longer. Even once the worst of the crisis is over in the US, world health experts expect the coronavirus to be around in some form or another for over a year.
Testing breakthroughs offer hope
Jay Ehrhart, executive director of CITA, said it may take a technological breakthrough before visitors could be re-admitted to the Cayman Islands.
He said the US Food and Drug Administration was looking at new test kits that could potentially detect coronavirus with a five-minute turnaround.
If those become widely available, he said, passengers could be required to be tested before they board the plane.
“Something on those lines is probably the only confident way we’re going to be able to open our borders and feel safe that it’s not going to re-spread (the virus) through the island.”
Leacock-Broderick agreed with that analysis. But she warned it could be some time before approval, production and supply were ramped up to the point where such kits were available to border control agencies.
“This is why it’s so very important for us to deal with the reality that it this could be very well the end of the year at best before the airport reopened,” she said.
Focus on domestic economy
In the interim, she said, the focus must turn to the intra-island economy – how to help businesses survive off the local economy alone.
Even that moment could be some way off. With new COVID-19 cases announced almost every day over the past week in Cayman, the prospect of an end to the curfews and ‘shelter in place’ measures that are helping contain the spread of the virus is not yet in sight.
All business owners on the panel backed the government’s stance on this and emphasised that they are not calling for any relaxation of the island-wide lockdown until there is evidence that the virus is under control within the territory.
But they are mobilising to be ready for the moment when it is safe to do business again in Cayman.
Markus Mueri, of NM Ventures, which owns several restaurants including Abacus and Karoo in Camana Bay, said businesses had to forget about trying to make a profit.
He said breaking even and staying alive until tourists return was the only game plan.
“A $55 steak cannot be $55 anymore. It will be $30,” he said.
“When we open up, each and every business needs to learn how to break even, to have employees, provide a pay cheque and get the economy going. Once we break even, we can grow it.”
He said it was crucial to develop a plan to allow businesses to open their doors the minute it was safe to do so.
“As soon as the premier and the governor give the green light, we have to be ready to go.”
Chamber of Commerce president Woody Foster said the reopening of the domestic economy was crucial to the survival of businesses.
“It is the monies that are here now that we’re going to have to live on and we need to be looking at how we get that money circulating through the economy,” he said.
Part of the first phase of the recovery effort may focus on helping businesses and workers transition to new skill sets. The prospect of repurposing taxi drivers as delivery drivers is one such idea. Retraining Caymanians to take on the roles vacated by departing work permit holders is another strategy that has been mooted.
Foster said the new world order could even mean new careers and new job categories.
Protocols around hygiene, social distancing and sanitation may be required before people can get back to work, and trained staff will be needed.
She warned that even when it was safe to travel again, people would likely be reluctant to do so and extremely discerning about where they decide to go.
Cayman will need to distinguish itself, she believes, by proving it is a safe place to visit.
“We can spend a lot of energy on gloom and doom,” she said, “but it’s really important that we put our intelligence and our creativity into thinking about how do we reinvent ourselves. How do we do things differently in the new world order and with the new priorities that are going to exist?”