Kirkconnell: COVID vaccine could drive early-2021 border reopening

Tourism sector presses for pre-arrival COVID testing

From left, moderator Paul Byles, Tourism Director Rosa Harris, Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell, Commerce Minister Joseph Hew and CITA hotel representative Marc Langevin at Wednesday's forum. - Photo: Norma Connolly

Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell has told representatives of the tourism industry that Cayman could have access to COVID-19 vaccines in December, which may enable the islands to reopen borders early next year.

Responding to calls from members of the Cayman Islands Tourism Association for more transparency and a clearer plan for the border reopening, Kirkconnell said, based on comments made by UK Health Minister Matt Hancock on the development of a vaccine, that it appeared “we are to get our vaccine in December,” and Cayman “should be opening” in the first quarter of next year.

Kirkconnell said Chief Medical Officer Dr. John Lee had outlined some options for the implementation of the vaccine, which included potentially mandating that anyone entering Cayman must be vaccinated before arrival, or vaccinating the local population so they could not be infected if anyone with COVID enters the islands. The tourism minister said no discussion had yet taken place on whether local vaccinations would be mandatory.

The minister was speaking at a forum following CITA’s annual general meeting at The Ritz-Carlton hotel on Wednesday, 12 Nov.

Pre-arrival testing

At the forum, CITA members urged the government to implement pre-arrival COVID-19 tests for incoming travellers, saying such tests are being used in competing destination markets in the region, such as Bermuda, Barbados, US Virgin Islands, and Aruba, among others.

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In a presentation, Marc Langevin, the general manager of The Ritz-Carlton and a CITA hotel sector representative, pointed to several other Caribbean islands that have reopened their borders to tourists, unlike Cayman which has partially reopened but only to Caymanians, returning residents, work-permit holders, friends and families of people who live here, and digital nomads approved under the newly introduced Global Citizen Concierge programme.

Langevin said the hotel industry had come up with multi-layer approaches to reopening the borders and accepting tourists, which had been communicated to government, but he said the industry had not received updates from government on how or when borders may reopen.

“There is a consensus in the region that there is one good process – to do a test before people travel, so at least before they travel, you know if they have COVID or not. Pretty much all these destinations have adopted that,” he said, pointing to a PowerPoint slide that outlined the protocols used in such places as St. Thomas, Aruba and Bermuda. He said those markets were currently receiving at least 5,000 air arrivals a week.

This chart, presented at Wednesday’s CITA forum by Marc Langevin, outlines approaches taken to border reopenings and testing in various Caribbean destinations. CLICK TO ENLARGE.

“There are precedents, there are success stories, there is a way to control the re-entry of tourists without arriving to that scenario that everybody fears – that we are all going to be back in quarantine, that we are going to shut down the island,” Langevin said, adding that he believed government decisions were being made based on fear and emotion, rather than on available data.

“We have shared the data; we have eight months of data,” he said. “We believe those are not being viewed. We believe that there are limitations in the current protocol, that we will never be able to move to the next steps with this protocol,” he said, pointing out that as more businesses close and more employees lose their jobs, less money, in the form of rent and retail spending, will be injected into the economy.

Kirkconnell responded that, even though 25% of Cayman’s gross domestic product was contingent on tourism, the government had an obligation to keep the local population safe and healthy, but admitted that Cayman was “erring on the side of caution” when it came to the protocols currently in use.

“We would not be having this conversation right now if the world hadn’t gone into the second wave of the pandemic,” he said.

In September, government had considered introducing a ‘BioButton’ to monitor arrivals and a shorter quarantine period, but that idea was shelved when the phased reopening of the borders began on 1 Oct.

Moving goal posts

Commerce Minister Joseph Hew, who also spoke at the forum, denied that there had been “radio silence” from the government on developments for reopening the border.

“Every time we think we have a solution, the goal posts move,”  he said, adding that government was “fighting right now to ensure we keep the British Airways flights going through Christmas and January”, as the UK is currently in lockdown.

However, he said, negotiations were under way to increase the number of BA flights from the UK through December and January, and that Cayman Airways was increasing the number of its flights out of the US.

Hew pointed out that some Caribbean destinations that had reopened to tourists subsequently were forced to go back into lockdown as COVID cases increased.

Addressing the issue of requiring PCR tests to be done prior to arriving on island, Hew said, “We were ready to roll that out based on the risk of the country, but now just about everyone, except perhaps Canada, that is a gateway country of ours is a high-risk country and we want them to have an extended time in quarantine.”

Anyone arriving in Cayman currently is required to quarantine for 14 days, get tested on the 15th day, and remain in isolation until they return a negative result. As of Wednesday evening, 898 people were in isolation, the single biggest number of people quarantined since the protocols were introduced.

Hew said one of the considerations the government had taken into account when deciding not to implement pre-arrival PCR tests was the testing of returning students. “Suppose they get a positive test result before trying to get home to their families here in Cayman. How do we deal with that? Do we get special permissions for them? And then we have a situation where everyone on the flight is COVID-free but we have one or two of our students returning home who tested positive.”

Langevin argued that Cayman is in a better position than many countries that have reopened, with a stronger economy, more hospitals, more testing capacity and better access to technology. “We are better prepared in case anything happens… We have all these advantages but we’re doing nothing with them,” he said, as he asked the government ministers to provide more transparency in the plans to reopen the borders.

“Right now, we have all already given up on Christmas,” he said. “We know the kids need to come back from schools to be with their families for Christmas and no one wants to take a chance, but what we need is transparency and a collaborative plan that is looking at January… so we can be ready, so we can be prepared for reopening.”

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  1. I was dismayed to ready that Mr. Langevin considered the fact that Cayman has “more hospitals” is a benefit that Cayman has over other countries in the region. Perhaps I misunderstood, but if Mr. Langevin is saying that since we have a greater ability to treat sick people we should therefore be willing to allow people to get sick as an acceptable risk so the Ritz can make more money. This is a worrying concept. Remember the words of our Premier…sick people make bad workers, dead people make bad customers.

    Once again the concept of pre-departure and on arrival tests are being touted as a means to keep the community safe from another COVID outbreak. Given that this virus has an up to 14 day incubation period, neither a “pre-departure test” nor an “on arrival test” will do anything to fully protect the community. Here is an example time line….5 days before I plan to travel to Cayman I start incubating COVID, I take a test 3 days before I leave and get a negative result, on arrival I also get a negative test result, on my 8th day in Cayman COVID is fully incubated in my body and I now have COVID and would test positive if I was was tested, but instead I am now contagious, and I am in the community and spreading COVID around. How are we protected?