Cayman Islands leaders are taking time to ensure the island’s reopening plan is “as close to perfect as possible”, tourism director Rosa Harris said Friday afternoon.
Explaining the decision to delay the reopening of the islands’ air border until October, Harris said Cayman was reluctant to risk reintroducing COVID-19 to the island. The reopening of cruise tourism is an even more distant goal, with a ban on visiting ships extended until next year at the earliest.
She was speaking during a panel discussion at the Chamber of Commerce’s Cayman Economic Outlook conference on Friday.
Asked what a successful reopening plan would look like, Harris said, it would be “to open and remain open”.
She added, “The last thing we want to do it to open and have to close. If it takes just a little longer to get it right, we want to be as close to perfect as possible.”
Several countries, including the Bahamas, have reopened their borders only to close them again and institute new lockdowns after fresh outbreaks of the virus.
Harris said Cayman was determined to avoid that fate and was watching and learning from other countries in the region.
In a recorded speech earlier at the conference, Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell made a similar point, saying, “The delay in opening our islands’ borders, though regrettable, is allowing us to learn from the experiences of other jurisdictions, and is ensuring that our arrivals and screening processes are informed by international best practice, and based on the latest industry standards.”
Harris warned that even when the borders do reopen in October, it would be with strict quarantine measures in place and with the use of technology to monitor visitors’ health status.
She acknowledged that the Cayman Islands government, at some point, would have to take a “greater risk”, but suggested it could not do so with any confidence until the virus was under control in the US.
She added that the initial reopening would be “a very scaled approach”, with a focus on specific groups, like vacation-home owners, friends of residents, and long-stay tourists.
A ‘global citizens programme’ that allows wealthy individuals and their families to live in Cayman and work remotely is also under consideration.
Harris accepted that there would not be “droves and droves” of interest from tourists in visiting Cayman while intense COVID-control measures, including an application process, quarantine period on island, and requirement to wear remote health monitoring devices, were in place.
Speaking on the same panel, Marc Langevin, general manager of The Ritz-Carlton resort on Seven Mile Beach, said the situation was currently unsustainable for tourism businesses.
He called for urgency and innovation to be applied to finding a way to allow some tourism to return and for businesses and people to get back to work.
“We can’t keep pushing back and pushing back; at some point, we have to make a hard decision,” he said.
“We can’t wait for the perfect solution, that is a dream.”
He acknowledged it was “extremely complicated” to invite tourists back and keep the island and its guests safe from COVID-19.
But he said the economic threat of an extended closure was severe for many businesses, most significantly for small Caymanian operators.
At some stage, with COVID-19 expected to be an ongoing global health threat, he said Cayman would have to decide what level of risk it was prepared to take.
“If success is maintaining zero cases, we might as well wait until next year, or 10 years – who knows? We have to be careful and set the expectation clearly – what is success, allowing for certain risk?”
Harris said she believed tourists and businesses would ultimately appreciate Cayman’s careful approach.
“When we do open our borders, we want to send a message of confidence,” she said. “Remaining closed now gives us time to get it right.”
Theresa Leacock Broderick, president of the Cayman Islands Tourism Association, said a lot of its members were struggling.
But she backed government’s approach and said seeing other islands open their borders, only to be forced to close again, had created a sense of confidence that government was doing the right thing.
At an earlier panel during the same conference, the expert behind the ‘BioButton’ or ‘BioSticker’ devices, that will be used to track the vital statistics of visitors, gave a rundown of how the technology works.
Dr. James Mault, CEO of BioIntelliSense which created the device, said it can transmit data on individuals’ temperature, breathing patterns and heart rate to alert medical professionals to early signs of infection.
One concern around allowing visitors to come back to Cayman is the incubation period of the virus.
Even with testing, Chief Medical Officer Dr. John Lee said it would be possible for some COVID-19-positive patients to slip through the net.
He said requiring two tests (several days apart) alongside the use of health monitoring technology, like the BioSticker, would enable a ‘safer reopening’.
“We are going to have to find a solution that includes technology pretty quick because sustained and prolonged closure of the island would be crippling for the economy,” he said.
One of the issues the BioSticker is designed to get around is the high number of ‘asymptomatic cases’.
Mault said the device was essentially an “early warning system” for the subtle signs of infection. He said it would pick up evidence of infection that an individual may not notice themselves, such as fluctuations in heart rate.
It could also be used to help with contact tracing if new cases do emerge, he said.
Kirkconnell, in his speech at the conference, said the technology would play a key part in the reopening plan.
“Millions of people worldwide are accustomed to wearing devices such as Fitbits linked to smartphones, and smart watches to passively track fitness activity and sleep patterns,” he said. “In this instance, the health monitoring device would provide the wearer and public health officials with heightened reassurance that any cause for concern will be picked up at a very early stage, allowing public health officials the opportunity to intervene as soon as possible.”
He said Cayman’s long-term goal was to replace quarantine and isolation with technology as it reopens in stages.