Britain’s Overseas Territories in the Caribbean have taken different approaches to balancing the economic and health threats posed by COVID-19 and the measures to combat the virus, with Cayman among the most conservative.
While Cayman maintains a ‘safety first’ approach – a strategy that has paid dividends in terms of one of the lowest infection rates in the region – sister territories are beginning to relax travel restrictions and restore freedom of movement, within and across borders, as vaccination programmes start to make an impact.
The British Virgin Islands, which has had only one death from the virus and which until recently had imposed strict quarantine requirements on incoming travellers, has opened up to vaccinated tourists.
Anguilla, which closed its borders to manage a cluster of cases last month, has reopened for vaccinated visitors with a seven-day quarantine and a testing requirement. From 1 July, the territory will remove the quarantine and testing requirement for anyone who has been fully vaccinated at least three weeks prior to travel.
Bermuda, which reopened its borders in June last year, has introduced a new quarantine requirement for unvaccinated travellers, amid a serious outbreak that has killed 20 people in the North Atlantic islands since April. But visitors and returning residents who have had the jab and who test negative for COVID on arrival are not required to quarantine at all.
The latest outbreak in Bermuda now appears to be under control, though the island has suffered a comparatively high infection and death toll, with 2,490 cases and 32 deaths overall.
Examples for Cayman
Michael Tibbetts, vice president of the Cayman Islands Tourism Association, argues that Cayman can look to the examples of BVI and Anguilla, which have reported a single death between them, for a cautious exit strategy from the lockdown.
“Both governments have taken a science-driven approach to reopening by determining that the risk posed by a vaccinated visitor from select countries, including the US, who has been PCR tested pre-arrival and on arrival, is extraordinarily low,” he said.
“Combined with the vaccination of high-risk groups in the local population, these countries believe that the risks of cautiously reopening does not imperil their near-perfect records in preventing death from COVID-19.”
With low and declining COVID-19 rates in Cayman’s primary source market of the US, Tibbetts believes it is time to consider reopening to vaccinated travellers, as others have done.
“While we hope to one day reopen to all visitors, there are now over 130 million fully vaccinated Americans ready to travel. Vaccinated Americans are seeing their options to travel rapidly expand throughout the Caribbean and Europe, and are asking us when they can visit Cayman,” he added.
‘Safe Key’ to manage movement in Bermuda
Bermuda is also launching a ‘COVID Safe Key’ app that allows residents or visitors to prove they have been either vaccinated or have recently passed a COVID test. Authorities in the territory, where residents still face certain lockdown restrictions, have indicated the app will allow for the reopening of indoor restaurants and bars, for example.
Even as the death toll mounts in Bermuda, the island’s leaders are facing some backlash over restrictions on the freedom of movement and travel.
Bermudian journalist Don Burgess, who covers the pandemic for the Bermuda Broadcasting Company, said there were mixed opinions in the country about the vaccination programme and quarantine restrictions.
He said government’s recent decision to impose a self-funded mandatory 14-day quarantine on any non-vaccinated travellers, including returning residents, arriving on island, had prompted protests.
“Many people feel government is trying to force them into getting vaccinated to avoid paying out all that money,” he said, citing the US$2,800 minimum cost of mandatory quarantine.
A team of lawyers, including the island’s former attorney general Mark Pettingill, have initiated a lawsuit that would seek to challenge the 14-day quarantine restriction, among other measures. They argue that restrictions – particularly those that treat vaccinated and unvaccinated people differently – breach residents’ constitutional rights.
The lawsuit suggests that mandatory quarantine is tantamount to incarceration and that the threat of the spread of COVID-19 could be managed through electronic monitoring.
Burgess said a single ‘super spreader’ in Bermuda, who had not obeyed a quarantine recommendation under previous regulations, had been linked to 81 cases during the recent outbreak on the island.
The backlash against the government doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of everyone, and Burgess indicates there are many people who have been vaccinated that are pushing for authorities to take a harder line against those that are unwilling to take the jab and allow more freedoms for those that do.
One step in that direction might be the COVID Safe Key programme, which could allow residents to prove their health status.
“Vaccinated people, and people who have had a negative COVID test in the past three days, could be allowed certain privileges, such as dining indoors or being allowed to attend large gatherings, like concerts or sporting contests,” said Burgess.
Bermuda has had a very different approach to Cayman, which has kept its borders essentially closed to tourists since the beginning of the outbreak in March last year. While Bermuda’s strategy has been welcomed by businesses on the island, it does not appear to have had a significant positive impact on its economy, with tourism spending down 89% for 2020.
BVI begins to reopen
In another sister territory, the British Virgin Islands, the approach of the islands’ leaders has been much closer to that followed in Cayman, with similar results. BVI has had fewer than 250 total cases and one death from COVID-19.
The island reopened its borders at the turn of the year, with strict quarantine protocols that are only now beginning to be relaxed.
From 15 May, BVI cut its quarantine to a single day – the time it takes to get the result back from a COVID-19 arrival test – for vaccinated visitors. People who have not been vaccinated are still required to quarantine for seven days and be tested multiple times.
Joey Waldinger, a reporter with the BVI Beacon, said he believed the community was largely happy with the measures. He said there had been just 7,000 tourist arrivals in the first quarter of 2021, and the industry had been pushing for some relaxation of the rules.
“I think right now they are pretty happy with the new measures,” he said. “For a long time there was a feeling that government was not listening to them. The Chamber of Commerce and tourism board were coming up with suggestions and they felt that nothing was being done.”
In general, he believes, people are pretty happy with the government’s efforts, particularly in ensuring a low infection and death rate from the virus compared to other countries. The vaccination rate in BVI is relatively low, with approximately 10,000 of its population of 30,000 vaccinated.
Turks and Caicos tourism industry thriving
Elsewhere, the Turks and Caicos Islands has one of the most successful vaccination programmes. The territory made headlines in April for a mandatory policy requiring all work-permit holders to have the jab, and has now vaccinated 62% of its population.
Turks is open to tourism, with no quarantine period and relatively few restrictions. Though it has had a higher infection and death rate (2,402 cases and 17 deaths) than Cayman or BVI, it does seem to have got some economic benefit from reopening.
Tourism to the archipelago hovers around 70% capacity, according to The New York Times.
The Seven Stars hotel, which now offers a drink voucher along with complimentary COVID-19 tests, is sold out for May and almost sold out for June, the newspaper reported.
“It was literally like a tap being turned on,” Ken Patterson, chief executive of the five-star resort told the Times, noting he had never seen such high demand.