Premier: ‘We can’t risk recovery by opening to tourists too soon’

2 new COVID cases, including one symptomatic

The Cayman Islands has two new cases of COVID-19, both involving travellers and including one person who is experiencing mild symptoms associated with the virus.

The latest results came as Premier Alden McLaughlin insisted there were no current plans to shorten the 14-day quarantine period for people arriving on the island.

Government also announced a new $200 million loan programme to support struggling businesses and noted the imminent launch of a ‘global citizen’ initiative offering people the chance to live in Cayman and work remotely for businesses overseas.

McLaughlin said Cayman’s economy – bolstered by more than $400 million in emergency pension payouts – was doing all right despite the coronavirus crisis.

Speaking at a press conference Friday, he emphasised government would not take undue risks to bring back tourists prematurely, warning that it could jeopardise public health as well as the resurgence of the domestic economy.

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Meanwhile Chief Medical Officer Dr. John Lee warned that a vaccine would not be a panacea for COVID-19 in Cayman or globally, and that residents may once again have to  adhere to COVID-prevention protocols.

New cases

Both new patients are still in isolation in government facilities, Lee said at the press conference.

There are currently 121 people isolating at home and 324 people at government facilities.

Neither of the new cases involved travellers who arrived on island Thursday, when the softening of the border restrictions came into force.

Despite the strict protocols, Lee said there was a heightened risk of COVID coming back into the community as travel and the use of home isolation increased.

He said sample testing would be stepped up. Cayman is not currently considering using new rapid antigen tests for screening, which Lee said had yet to be endorsed by the World Health Organization. He said Cayman had no shortage of PCR tests, which are considered more reliable.

Lee also warned that increases in travel created new risks and that even a vaccine would not fully mitigate that. He said Cayman Islands residents may have to get used to wearing masks and social distancing once again as the island moved through the phases of reopening.

While those in home isolation are wearing geofencing technology, Lee encouraged them to be vigilant and responsible, and abide by the rules.

“It is not business as usual,” he said, stressing they could not have visitors or workers come to their homes.

McLaughlin said there had been no breaches of home isolation so far. He said 110 people arrived yesterday on six flights and went into quarantine at 72 different homes. The remainder went into government facilities.

Tasha Ebanks-Garcia, a senior government advisor, said there had been 95 house visits made to isolating residents over the past 14 days and people in quarantine receive a phone call every other day on average to ensure compliance.

Isolation period will not be shortened

The premier also said there was currently no consideration of shortening the 14-day quarantine period to help bring back tourists. He said the science indicated that 14 days was the incubation period of the virus and the situation globally did not justify relaxing guidelines.

“The economy is doing reasonably well even without the vast number of tourists we (usually) have,” he said.

“If we go back into lockdown, development, construction and all the things that are driving the local economy are going to be terribly affected,” he added, noting that job sites would have to shut down if there is a new influx of COVID-19.

“We understand the pressures to open and we really want tourists here but we can’t risk what is a ‘going concern’ right now unreasonably. The science is not there in terms of shortening the incubation period.”

Global citizens programme

The premier added that government was in the final stages of developing a ‘global citizen concierge’ programme that would allow people to come and live in Cayman and work remotely for overseas businesses.

Similar to initiatives in Barbados and Bermuda, he said the programme was aimed at individuals and families who could support themselves financially and would comply with quarantine requirements.

They will not be allowed to work locally, he stressed.

“They are not coming here to set up businesses in competition with local businesses.”

He said new arrivals would be ‘high net worth individuals’ who wanted to enjoy living in Cayman while working remotely in furtherance of their businesses overseas.

The Ministry of Tourism is expected to announce further details and the launch of the programme next week.

Pension payouts injected $400 million into the economy

McLaughlin also gave data on the pension payout which he said had injected more than $400 million into the economy.

More than 33,000 applications were approved for pension withdrawals, he said.

The premier warned that the stimulus that influx of cash had provided could not last indefinitely.

“Let’s not any of us get carried away and believe that this time next year, if there isn’t a vaccine, the economy is going to be this robust.”

New government-guaranteed loan programme

The panel faces the press at Friday’s conference. – Photo: Kevin Morales

Finance Minister Roy McTaggart meanwhile announced the details of a new government guaranteed loan programme to support medium- and large-sized businesses that have been impacted by the COVID-crisis.

Medium-sized businesses, defined as those with between 13 and 50 employees or gross annual revenues between $750,000 and $5 million, can access loans of up to $750,000 through the programme.

Large businesses, defined as those with more than 50 employees and more than $5 million in annual revenues, can access loans of up to $3 million.

McTaggart said the scheme – a collaboration with five local banks – opened up access to loan funding on good conditions that may not have been otherwise available.

Government is guaranteeing 50% of the loan value in each case, meaning they share the risk with the banks. There will be a year repayment holiday, meaning only interest payments are required in the first 12 months.

McTaggart said he hoped the programme would provide relief to businesses, particularly those in tourism, who had suffered the worst effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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