At the end of June, with two active COVID-19 cases on the island, the Bermuda government made a bold and controversial decision.
Despite continued community fears over the pandemic, which claimed nine lives in the country in March and April, Premier David Burt announced the island would be welcoming back tourists from the United States.
In the face of some public opposition, including a petition calling for the borders to remain closed, Burt insisted that air travel was vital to Bermuda’s economic pillars of international business and tourism.
Three months later, the country is seeing the first shoots of recovery for its industry.
“The decision (to reopen the borders) was made once we were sure that we had the necessary protections in place, which included all the necessary equipment, monitoring measures and all of the precautions to keep passengers, employees and the community safe from the coronavirus,” Burt told the Cayman Compass via email last week.
Visitors to the island, which has a population of 64,000 and a similar economy to the Cayman Islands, are required to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test from an accredited facility within seven days of travel.
They are tested again on arrival at Bermuda’s LF Wade International Airport, and again on the fourth, eighth and 14th day of their trip.
The island’s central post office has been transformed into a testing centre.
There is no isolation requirement for tourists other than a few hours in their hotel room as they await the outcome of that first test.
So far, the results have been encouraging. Of the thousands of tourists that have come into Bermuda since the borders reopened only eight have tested positive at the airport.
Only four have tested negative at the airport and subsequently tested positive in their day-four tests, according to data from the Ministry of Health.
When cases do emerge, they are quickly tracked and traced and there has been no spike in COVID-19 numbers. At publication time, authorities in Bermuda were monitoring five active cases.
The originally cautious attitude of the resident population is starting to change.
According to surveys carried out by the private-sector-led Bermuda Tourism Authority, the percentage of local residents who believe that arriving tourists pose a risk to their health dropped from 62% in May to 12% in September.
Perhaps an even more resounding indicator of public support arrived in the form of an historic landslide victory for the ruling Progressive Labour Party in a general election last week.
Glenn Jones, CEO of the authority, said confidence had grown as people had seen the success of the measures put in place.
He acknowledged that tourism on the island is hardly booming. In July, Bermuda had recovered around 10% of its usual airlift and was bringing in around 5% of its usual tourist traffic – just 1,677 tourists.
By September, a month in which the island was also hit by two hurricanes, the airlift was back to 22% and visitation was sitting at around 15% compared to the previous year.
“While those are paltry numbers it does feel good that we are getting back to where we need to go,” said Jones. “We believe our path to recovery will be faster than most because we started sooner and haven’t regressed.”
Cayman watching and learning
The Cayman Islands strategy so far has been to watch and wait, and see what works and what doesn’t in the region and the world at large.
A tentative border reopening began here on Thursday with the softening of regulations to allow second-home owners and some long-stay visitors to come into the islands, but with a 14-day mandatory quarantine remaining in place.
Examples of countries that have suffered the consequences of unsuccessful reopenings are plentiful.
The Bahamas opened in July but was forced to close again later the same month in a move that tourism minister Dionisio D’Aguilar acknowledged was ‘traumatic’ for the sector.
Risk vs. Reward
Bermuda is one of relatively few examples of countries in the region that have had a ‘successful’ reopening. But it has not been risk-free.
The island continues to see occasional cases of COVID-19. Burt said it had been essential to ensure there was no complacency among the population. Masks and social distancing are still part of the scenery in Bermuda.
“There is a risk associated with opening your border during this pandemic. It is important to have stringent rules in place, along with aggressive testing, meticulous contact tracing and social-distancing measures,” he said.
The rewards are, in some senses, quite minimal.
Bermuda is only seeing a few thousand tourists each month, and the Fairmont Southampton resort – one of the island’s biggest hotels – announced recently that it was closing for 18 months to undergo a $100 million refurbishment project.
That is expected to lead to hundreds of job losses in the short term.
Phil Barnett, the owner of the Island Restaurant group which has five venues across Bermuda, said that while no one in the business is currently getting rich, something is palpably better than nothing.
“Because business dropped so precipitously it is meaningful when things start moving in the opposite direction.”
He said he had been able to open all his businesses and get a large number of staff back to work.
At the Hog Penny, one of the capital Hamilton’s live-music venues, a band performs behind a plexiglass screen.
Revellers in masks attempt to create some atmosphere on the dance floor.
“It is a little awkward,” Barnett admits.
After a few drinks, enforcing masks and social distancing becomes difficult, but not impossible.
On balance, he believes the island has made the best of a difficult situation.
“It is not a profitable time to be in hospitality but we are able to lose as little as possible, employ staff and keep the economy buzzing,” he said.
While current numbers are not sufficient to support a substantial industry, economist Peter Everson said the restart had served to prime the pump and help get people back to work.
Along with an influx of hundreds of new long-term visitors on the ‘work from Bermuda’ one-year residential certificates, he said it had provided a lifeline for some businesses.
“It has allowed some hotels to reopen and employ their staff and it has supported all of the tourism economy, from taxi drivers to restaurants, bars and attractions,” Everson, a consultant and former Chamber of Commerce president in Bermuda, told the Compass.
World’s best golfers head to Bermuda
The island is expected to get a further boost in October when it hosts the PGA Tour Bermuda Golf Championship – a professional event which attracted a field of more than 100 of the world’s best golfers in 2019.
That event will be the first PGA golf tournament since March to allow spectators.
Victoria Isley, chief marketing officer for the Bermuda Tourism Authority, which sponsors the event, said the ability to host the tournament would enhance the island’s reputation as a safe destination.
Reputation for safety
Jones said the island was developing a reputation that he hopes will make it stand out for COVID-conscious travellers.
In exit surveys since the border reopened, visitors cited the island’s management of the virus as the number two reason they chose Bermuda as a travel destination. Number one was beaches.
Jones said ‘safe, clean, close’ is the authority’s marketing mantra as it seeks to attract tourists from the US.
Despite the somewhat onerous obligation to go through four tests in a 14-day vacation, Jones said there was a high level of compliance from visitors.
“They chose Bermuda because they place a high value on public health, so they are willing to follow the rules.”
It has not all been smooth sailing.
In August, a tourist who tested positive for COVID-19 sparked a major tracing operation after it was learnt she spent time on a charter boat, visited a gym and dined at a restaurant.
The woman had tested negative for the virus prior to arrival and again at the airport. She only came up positive on her day-four test.
Though the first two tests weed out most positive cases, Jones said it was always anticipated that the odd case would slip through the net. That’s where contact tracing comes in.
He said all of the woman’s contacts were tracked, isolated and tested and there was no community spread that resulted from the incident.
Among the protocols for businesses that deal with tourists are extensive contact-tracing requirements. At restaurants, for example, tables are numbered and owners are required to keep a record of which staff served which guests.
Jones said the combination of testing and contact tracing, similar to techniques used in Iceland, had proved successful so far.
“You can count on one hand the number of day-four tests that have come back positive,” he said.
He acknowledged an element of risk. If Cayman wants to follow similar measures it might have to accept that some cases are inevitable.
“This process is not designed for us to maintain zero cases,” said Jones. “It is designed so that if there is a positive case, there is a clear line of tracking and tracing.”
He accepted it was a delicate balancing act between public health and the economy.
“Things are coming back gradually,” he said. “The goal is to get people back to work safely and responsibly in a way that does not negatively impact Bermuda.”