Around a month before the coronavirus hit the Cayman Islands, Errol Reid took delivery of a new 30-seat Toyota Coaster bus from Japan.
Cayman was in the midst of another record high tourism season and he saw an opportunity to grow his business.
Six months later, with the island closed to tourists and little prospect of cruise ships returning any time soon, he is wondering where his next dollar will come from.
“Right now, I am planting trees,” he said. “Everything has gone, there is zero business.”
Many tour operators are in the same position. Some took loans on their properties to fund new vehicles just before COVID hit and are struggling to meet those expenses, said Gerry-Mae Gould, president of the Cayman Islands Independent Tour Bus Association.
Others are struggling to meet their basic living expenses.
Gould is one of more than 2,000 tourism workers now pulling a monthly $1,000 stipend from government. She is grateful for the help but it only goes so far.
“I got my stipend, I paid my light bill and that was it,” she said.
As well as their living expenses, many drivers have to pay insurance and upkeep on their vehicles. Though they were doing well before lockdown, many had reinvested the money in their businesses.
“I haven’t made a dollar for five months,” said William Powery, who drives a Coaster-style bus. “If you want a big surprise, stop earning for five months and see how long you can last.”
There are around 80 drivers in the tour operators association, though the group also represents a wider pool of taxi drivers.
The drivers rely almost exclusively on tourism, primarily cruise tourism, and have been among the hardest hit by the closure of Cayman’s borders.
“We were effectively fired from our jobs without warning,” said Sonya Moya, secretary of the association. “It sounds jokey but it is not funny; this is reality. We don’t know where to turn or what we are going to do. We’re in a very serious situation.”
With no news on when cruise lines may come back, the short-term prospects for tour operators look bleak.
Even in the longer term, there is little certainty about the future of the industry.
Moya recognises she will likely have to carry half the number of passengers to meet social-distancing protocols. She believes drivers will also have to invest in plexiglass partitions to make their vehicles COVID safe.
She said it has been hard to find other sources of income in the interim. She reached out to construction firms to see if she could get a contract to transport workers. She also applied for jobs as a delivery driver and even as a shop cashier, but received no reply.
“It is a struggle,” she said. “No one wants to hire us, they want younger people.”
The idea of retraining or switching careers to a different industry is easier said than done for many tour operators who have money tied up in their businesses, said Reid, who is also vice president of the association.
“I am going to sell my bus, sell it to who? Do you want to buy it?” Reid said.
For others, like Powery, who already had a career as a builder, the idea of learning a new trade is not really practical.
“I am 70 years old,” he said, “I am not going to retrain. I can still drive, I can still talk to people. This is what I can do.”
Despite the hardship, the tour operators are not encouraging government to rush to reopen the borders.
“As much as we want to see tourism come back, we are still concerned about the wellbeing of the people on the island,” said Gould.
Perhaps the toughest thing about the situation is that there are no clear solutions. There is no obvious policy to campaign for or advocate for.
“We are living in the new abnormal,” said Moya. “It is a scary situation.”