By Staff Writer
A call has been made for the Cayman Islands Government (CIG) to appoint a ‘reopening czar’ to lead and coordinate the next phase of the jurisdiction’s unlocking of the economy from COVID-19 restrictions.
The suggestion came in the first edition of the new Caymanian Times weekly podcast, The Panel.
Panellists Dr Roy Bodden and Mario E Ebanks agreed that the situation now warrants a key person to coordinate the process given the scale and significance of what’s at stake for Cayman.
With the important linkages between kickstarting the economy while safeguarding public health, there is mounting speculation that the government could very well be reviewing its decision to delay the previously announced October 14th reopening.
The schedule has been ‘paused’ at Phase Three (soft reopening with limited tourism) of the five-stage plan due to an outbreak of the first community-spread COVID-19 cases in Cayman since the pandemic started.
Phase Four was due to start on October 14th allowing for the reintroduction of stay-over tourism. Cruise tourism is still off the cards possibly until early next year.
Responding to a question from host Ralph Lewis, panellists Roy Bodden and Mario E Ebanks suggested that the leadership strategy on the reopening needs rethinking.
“I don’t think anything was wrong with the ‘pause’. What I think is weak is our leadership strategy,” was the assessment by Roy Bodden.
“I think what we need and what we are looking for, and I hope it's not too late, is for someone now to come forward from the government to say, here is where I think we should go based upon the science.”
“Why, why isn't there an assistant to (Chief Medical Officer) Dr John Lee, so that if he is missing, we could have someone filling in?” he wondered.
As posited by Dr Bodden public confidence in a reopening plan is critical.
“What you don't want to lose at this point is the confidence. You don't want to let the populace believe that you were just floundering and you're putting out fires, so when you appear on the national scene or hold a press conference is because of your track record situation. You want to let them leave them with the impression that you are in full control that you know where you're going and that there is a plan. And for me, that's a disappointment now. Come January, we don't have a timetable, we don't have a plan, so we pause? And what is it, a forever pause?” he asked.
The idea of a key person or agency coordinating all facets of the reopening is shared by co-panellist Mario E Ebanks.
“We need to have to understand who is in charge, what's the structure, do they have a project team, do they have a project manager so that if something happens, they activate this plan. This is the war. You cannot fight a war by panicking.”
“Whether it’s Dr Lee or whoever we call upon, we need to know who is in charge. We don’t need to have everybody involved because you get nothing done, but you got to have a structure in place.”
Mr Ebanks also felt the current ‘pause’ itself at Phase Three would have a detrimental effect on the economy, especially the tourism sector and the expectations for the upcoming peak season.
“I agree with the tourism industry. What happened in this case airfare reservations are cancelled, all the bookings are cancelled, and a lot of things are happening which is bad for the economy.”
He felt that the government might have overreacted in its decision to pause the reopening.
“By that time, I guess, the government didn’t know how bad this thing was (referring to the community cases) and without raking a little longer to assess it, the cancellations started. So, the traditional Christmas season for tourism now is pretty much dead,” he determined.
However, there was an appreciation for the predicament the government is in with its plans thrown off-kilter by the community outbreak which continues to spread although only one hospitalisation has been reported and no other instances of serious illness reported.
“Had we gone ahead on 14th of October and liberalised the opening we would have been a bit total chaos. So, this was almost like a dry run. So, in a way that gave us a chance to say well wait a minute, we have been complacent, we have been flatfooted for the last year.”
It was agreed that the restrictions and border closures over the past year and a half have created an opportunity to “reset” as both panellists agreed.
Prompted by a question from host Ralph Lewis, it was felt that the period of the downturn hadn’t been utilised to the best advantage to retrain and re-skill Caymanian tourism workers. It was also felt that an opportunity has been missed to develop subsectors and cottage industries from the main tourism sector.
Making the case for Cayman to ‘think outside the box’ Roy Bodden said: “I have said that the hospitality industry offers an incredible opportunity for young Caymanians to take advantage of. Why for example, are we not encouraging micro industries with spin-offs for the tourist industry can tap into cottage industries? Why are we not training artisans? Why are we not encouraging people in the whole cottage industry is making things like jams, jellies, crafts, for example?”
With attention now keenly focused on an expected adjustment to the reopening plan, both panellists emphasised the importance of the ongoing vaccination campaign and strongly condemned misinformation and conspiracy theories but upheld freedom of choice and speech.
It was considered that some elements of vaccine mandates were in the broad community interest and underpinned by existing legislation.
Amendments to the relevant laws regarding vaccines were also down for debate in Parliament this week linked to the reopening plans.
THE PANEL is hosted by Ralph Lewis, publisher and editor of Caymanian Times
J.A. (Roy) Bodden - a former Cayman Islands legislator and government minister, former president of the University College of the Cayman Islands, and a highly respected historian and academic.
Mario E. Ebanks - businessman, politician, political commentator, former senior government official (Director of Labour & Pensions), and former Manager of the Cayman Islands Chamber of Commerce.
Join The Panel’s weekly Podcast on Thursday evening at 8pm