The government has rejected calls from the Cayman Islands Tourism Association to reconsider its target to vaccinate 80% of the population against COVID-19 before launching a soft reopening of the borders to tourists.
From 9 Sept., Cayman will move to the third phase of its reopening plan, adopting an ‘Open Skies’ approach of allowing commercial flights to return here, if the islands have reached the 80% target. Until then, only repatriation flights operated by Cayman Airways and British Airways are allowed.
Premier Wayne Panton, Deputy Premier Chris Saunders and Tourism Minister Kenneth Bryan spoke with CITA members at a meeting of the tourism group on Thursday afternoon.
At that meeting, at the Marriott Beach Resort, in a question-and-answer session, the government officials were asked what alternative plans were in place if the 80% vaccination target is not reached by the 9 Sept. deadline.
Panton said the government planned to stick with that target, based on expert medical advice, but acknowledged that if, by September, Cayman has not inoculated 80% of its population, “we will have to make a decision at that point as to whether or not we go with a reduced number”.
However, he added, “Do we want to say at this point that less than 80% is sufficient? No. Why would we want to do that? I think that sends the wrong message.”
The premier said major efforts were being put into encouraging people to get vaccinated and those would continue in a bid to reach the inoculation target.
Bryan told the CITA members that a new vaccination drive would be launched shortly, after the DMS Group partnered with government to offer $100,000 for a prize draw.
CITA president Marc Langevin, at the meeting, said the 80% target appeared to be practically unachievable by 9 Sept. because of the number of children under 12 on island who cannot be vaccinated, and he pressed the lawmakers on why government would not consider making a decision on lowering the target earlier.
Panton responded that while his government understood the challenges and the “level of desperation” facing business owners and workers in the tourism industry, it would be sticking to the timeline advised by public health experts locally and in the UK “who have gotten us this far”. He said having as many people vaccinated as possible was the best defence Cayman had against community transmission of the coronavirus once the borders reopen.
Mandatory vaccines for work-permit holders
One way that the government plans to increase vaccination numbers is by mandating that expat workers who are renewing their work permits, or getting new ones, must be inoculated.
Panton said a draft of a legislative amendment for that purpose had been drawn up and was expected to go before Parliament in August.
He said the usual 28-day consultation period for amending laws could be shortened in exceptional or emergency circumstances.
“We feel that this is one of those scenarios that would justify us in giving shorter notice for the bill to amend the Immigration (Transition) Act to put in place specific requirements for vaccinations for renewals and grants of work permits,” he said.
Slowing vaccination numbers
Under the phased reopening plan announced earlier this month, the gradual reintroduction of tourism to Cayman is contingent on 80% of the islands’ estimated population, or 56,885 people, getting vaccinated.
As of 29 July, 47,472 people, or 67% of the population, had been fully vaccinated, and 49,834, or 70%, had received their first dose of the vaccine.
The rate of uptake on vaccinations has slowed down in recent weeks, following a major drive by government between 8 May and 9 June, when 14,000 people were inoculated. On Thursday, 110 people were vaccinated, with 49 getting their first dose, and 61 receiving their second, according to the latest update from government.
Pointing out that when Cayman reopens, it was inevitable that COVID-19 cases would occur here, the premier said, “If anyone feels that we think we’re not going to have infections from reopening, you’re mistaken – we will. If anyone feels we’re not going to have people sick from reopening, you’re mistaken – we will. Are we going to have deaths? It’s not impossible,” he said.
Panton added, “We have to try to maximise our chances of reopening safely and ensure that our people are as protected as possible, even those people who are taking an anti-vax position, who say ‘Under no circumstance are we getting vaccinated’. We have to try to fight that, and we feel the plan we have laid out is a rational plan, a reasoned plan, a phased plan, an effective one, which is going to deliver us in the best circumstances possible.”
Decisions on whether each phased step of the reopening process will go ahead as scheduled do not only rely on Cayman reaching the 80% vaccination target. The COVID infection rate overseas will also be taken into account, he said, stating that number of cases in the US were rising dramatically, including in the 16 states from which the majority of Cayman’s US visitors come from.
“There are things that are beyond our control that may strongly suggest we have to change plans, in the same way the last government had to make bold, strong decisions to shut down in order to protect people,” Panton said.
Check back later today for a further story from the CITA meeting regarding plans for the return of cruise ships and more airlines to Cayman.