The question isn't if and the question isn't why.
There was no doubt among the speakers for the online Chamber of Commerce 2020 Economic Forum on 14 August that visitors must again be allowed to return to the Cayman Islands despite the global COVID-19 pandemic. The questions are when, how and to whom to reopen Cayman's borders and several of the speakers in the full-day conference addressed those issues.
The "why" reasons the Cayman Islands must have a plan to reopen its borders to visitors involve the economy and were an aspect that Chamber President Woody Foster addressed in his opening remarks. He praised the government for assisting the tourism workers who are now unemployed because of the borders closure, but noted that the measures are unsustainable.
"We must find a prudent, safe way to bring in long-term residents, long-term tourists and workers so that we can introduce new money into the economy," he said. "Staycations and the financial sector cannot sustain the country for too much longer."
Minister of Finance and Economic Development Roy McTaggart agreed. Although the Cayman Islands' economy as a whole is expected to contract by 7.2% in 2020, parts of the tourism industry are facing a dismal reality.
"Despite a relatively robust performance in the first two months of the year ... the hotels and restaurant sector is expected to bear the brunt of the crisis, reflecting a contraction of 74.6%," he said. "The reopening and subsequent rebuilding of this segment of our economy is a very crucial component of our recovery."
In addition to the employment offered by the tourism industry, it also provides a significant portion of government revenues through the tourism accommodation tax, work permit fees for the many non-Caymanians working in the industry and import duties on the goods used to furnish tourism properties and on the foods and beverages sold to tourists. Through the first half of 2020, McTaggart said the tourists accommodation tax alone was down $14.8 million from last year despite high numbers of stay-over tourists during the first two months of the year.
The impacts of the tourism industry go beyond the direct revenues derived from tourists, with benefits filtering through the economy in a variety of ways. Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell said the tourism industry typically contributes 20-25% to the Cayman Islands' GDP, but that won't happen this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The tourism sector and tourist-reliant industries were hit hard, and thousands of workers were cast into unemployment virtually overnight," he said.
How and when to reopen when the COVID-19 pandemic is still ravaging Cayman's main tourism market, the United States, was a question tackled by Kirkconnell and Director of Tourism Rosa Harris.
Public safety is the priority, Kirkconnell said.
"I can confidently reassure you that protecting lives and enhancing public safety has been Government’s top priority since the onset of the pandemic, and it will remain a key element in all plans going forward until a vaccine is found and the virus no longer poses a threat to public health," he said.
Early on in its pandemic response, the government closed the borders to visitors until 1 September. That date was later pushed back to at least 1 October for flights and until at least 1 January, 2021, for cruise ship visits.
"The delay in opening our islands' borders, though regrettable, is allowing us to learn from the experiences of other jurisdictions, and is ensuring that our arrivals and screening processes are informed by international best practice and based on the latest industry standards," Kirkconnell said.
Harris said the Cayman Islands does not want to make the mistake of opening the borders too soon and having to quickly close them because of an outbreak of COVID-19 locally.
"If it takes Cayman just a little bit longer to get it right, we want to get it as close to perfect as we can," she said, noting that the cautious approach is important not only to residents of the Cayman Islands, but also to potential tourists, who want to stay safe as well.
"So how we operate and how we welcome visitors back, and being vigilant and not be relaxed about the protocols we have put in place ... will be key for the ongoing mitigation of COVID-19," she said. "Visitors are going to want to see that things are clean and sanitised because everyone wants confidence. Right now, our message as we are closed is, 'The Cayman Islands is worth the wait.'"
The Cayman Islands will take a phased approach to reopening the borders to commercial airlines. Before the first phase begins, a trial of the entry protocols will start on 17 September with the arrival of a single commercial British Airlines flight from London. These protocols include:
Some of the details have not been fine-tuned yet. For example, it was suggested those who choose to wear a health monitoring device and to quarantine in a private residence would have to remain there for five days; however, in a press briefing on 26 August, Premier Alden McLaughlin said these visitors would have to test negative for COVID-19 eight days after arrival before they could be released from quarantine.
If the initial trial works well, the government could proceed with reopening the borders on 1 October, although it might be only for the second British American Airlines commercial flight that is scheduled to arrive that day.
Harris believes using the BioButton would present the Cayman Islands as an innovator that leads with best practices.
"We would have a first-mover advantage in embracing the BioButton," she said.
The Chamber Economic Forum included a panel discussion dealing specifically with the BioButton, moderated by Dart President Business Development Jackie Doak. The panel included Cayman's Chief Medical Officer Dr. John Lee; Dr. James Mault, the CEO of BioIntelliSense Inc., the maker of the BioButton; and Dave Guilmette, the president of Global Health Solutions Inc.
Dr. Lee said he wore a similar device — a BioSticker — as a trial while on staycation at Cayman Kai.
"It's very easy to wear," he said. "Much easier than a wristband, really."
Lee said he was out in the sun and sea while wearing the BioSticker and it posed no problems with the adhesive.
The BioButton, which is the size of a coin, measures pulse rate, breathing rate and skin temperature on a 24-hour basis to see if those measurements vary from what would be normal for the individual wearing it. Prolonged increases in "normal" could be a sign the individual's body is fighting an infection of COVID-19.
The technology, which Dr. Mault said was developed and approved by the United States government prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, detect infection in the early stages, before a person unknowingly transmits it to others.
Though some people have privacy concerns about wearing a BioButton, its proponents say it operates very much like an AppleWatch or Fitbit, devices millions of people wear without concerns.
Speaking at the 26 August press briefing, McLaughlin said that in the initial phases of reopening, specific visitors were being targeted.
"This is aimed at those persons who either own a place here or have access to a place here and who intend to stay for significantly more than two weeks," he said. "Most of the people in that category who will come and stay for extended periods of time tend to be persons who have more money and will spend more readily in the economy over a longer period of time."
To help facilitate those who might wish to stay an extended length of time in the Cayman Islands, the government is developing a "Global Citizen" programme that targets "digital nomads" — those who can work remotely from anywhere in the world.
During the Chamber Economic Forum, Harris said the Global Citizen programme would involve changes to the Immigration Law that would allow people whose work is done remotely for entities outside of the Cayman Islands to remain in the country for longer than a typical tourist would.
Keynote speaker Marla Dukharan, an economist who believes Caribbean countries are too reliant on traditional tourism and that they must diversify their offerings, praised the Global Citizen initiative.
"I think that bringing people who are free to work from home - bringing those people onshore to be your tourists, but they stay a year — is a much more sustainable model than the traditional two-week or one-week tourist."
This article appears in print in the September 2020 edition of Camana Bay Times.