Cayman’s March border reopening appears to be off the table.
Premier Alden McLaughlin said last week that government has no specific timeline when it comes to unlocking Cayman’s borders.
“With the arrival of new COVID-19 strains and concerns over how much protection the current vaccines will offer against these new variants, it has become increasingly challenging to develop a firm timetable to get the Cayman tourism economy up and running again,” McLaughlin explained as he addressed the Chamber of Commerce Annual General Meeting on Thursday.
Pressed on what, if any, timeline government was looking at during the roundtable discussion following his address, McLaughlin admitted there was none.
“The goal that we had was always contingent upon getting enough people vaccinated and that, I think, is what we all need to start thinking about,” McLaughlin said, as he responded to questions on the reopening.
Even in his speech, he was careful to avoid giving any specific dates.
“We remain hopeful to be in a position to enjoy an improved stayover tourism high season. This will not be ‘business as usual’ but there is a real prospect that it could be ‘business as near normal’ as is possible as we close 2021 and enter 2022,” he said.
When taking questions, McLaughlin also alluded to concerns about the buy-in for vaccinations from those in vulnerable groups, especially in relation to the border reopening.
“The greater challenge, which all of us are seeing, is being able to persuade our people to take the vaccine… without that, there is, quite frankly, no way to reopen safely as all around the world is constantly demonstrating to us,” he said.
Previously, the premier had indicated that government was looking at a March reopening provided that sufficient numbers of the local population, in particular the more vulnerable groups, were vaccinated.
The proposed figure was 65%-70% of the population to effectively create herd immunity.
As of Friday, 7,853 people in Cayman had received the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. This included 289 people who have received their second dose of the vaccine. A new shipment of 9,750 doses arrived on Thursday.
McLaughlin said the Economic and Statistics Office had indicated that there are about 2,250 people over 80 years old in Cayman and just fewer than 10,000 aged over 60.
“So those are achievable numbers with the volumes we have of the vaccine, even [with] what we have now, if we can just get people to take it… [F]urther, any reopening plan is absolutely contingent upon getting at least 90% of your vulnerable population vaccinated,” he said.
McLaughlin, in his address, said government “must continue as best we can to balance the risks and make well-informed judgements about the future pace of re-opening”.
“Given concerns with new strains detected in travellers coming to Cayman, we must reassess. My caucus and Cabinet are awaiting updated information on our current vaccination programme and the situation with COVID-19, including the new strains, and the impact these have on plans to reopen the border,” he said, adding, “Whilst we need to consider how best to further open up, any decisions taken will be done with safety and public health as a major consideration.”
Government, he said, remains committed to finding a way to reopen safely despite the new challenges that seem to be “changing weekly”.
The premier said the changing circumstances surrounding the pandemic call for flexible planning.
Citing countries in the region which opened their borders early on, such as Bermuda and Barbados, he said “the risks of opening too soon may have negative consequences for the health of both the people and the economy if community spread restarts, forcing renewed restrictions and lockdowns”.
The premier said the lives of those in the community remain uppermost in government’s deliberations.
“We have an incredible record and one which we want to preserve, not for having the record but because it’s lives of our people that we’re talking about,” he said, during the discussion.
“No country in the world has been able to safely resume normal business and social activity,” he added, noting that vaccines offer “the only real hope”.
“If we get enough of the vulnerable people in our community vaccinated that gives us the possibility of opening safely, in the sense that very few people in our community would get really sick or possibly die as a result. So, everything really hinges on getting that [vulnerable] demographic vaccinated,” he said.
The premier contended that though questions remain about vaccinated individuals still being able to contract the virus, and transmitting it even if they do not get sick, it has been been proven that the vaccine prevents people from becoming very ill.
“So this is the reason for the great push to get as many people vaccinated as possible,” he said.
McLaughlin, commenting on the European Union/UK row over vaccine distribution, said he was not too worried it would impact local supplies.
“I really don’t think that the issue with availability of the vaccines is one that is going to be long term. There are just too many companies producing the vaccines, too many of them on the cusp of having their vaccine approved and so the current pressures on numbers available are going to go away,” he said.