Residents and businesses in the Cayman Islands are waiting to hear what the next few days might bring as the government moves to ease the lockdown measures which have been in place for around the past month and a half of an aggressive response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The encouraging news was offered by Hon. Premier Alden McLaughlin during Monday’s government press conference when he hinted at the first signs of a return to a semblance of normality possibly by this weekend.
Projections are that while there are likely to be more positive COVID-19 test results, the balance is tipping in favour of a decrease in the rate of spread of the disease in the community; a sign that the government’s strategy is working.
The Cayman Islands government, like other government across the globe, has had to shoulder the enormous financial burden brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
At a time of a steep economic decline caused by a widespread business slowdown due to government-imposed lockdowns - some countries declaring a State of Emergency - many businesses have been pressuring the governments to ease restrictions of only to keep them afloat.
It's been no different in Cayman.
Against that background Premier McLaughlin said Cayman was adopting New Zealand’s successful model of “elimination versus eradication”, and “testing, isolating and tracing.”
Across the three islands, he expected testing in Little Cayman to take about a day and anticipating all negative results much of the restrictions there could be relaxed early.
There’s a similar outlook for Cayman Brac where it is hoped that many of the risks there could be reduced as a result of extensive testing aimed at relaxing many of the restrictions, in particular travel, within the coming days.
The situation might be somewhat more challenging for Grand Cayman, the Premier said.
With the current Shelter-In-Place (SIP) order expiring this Friday, Mr McLaughlin said: “We are hoping that if the test results continue on the current (downward) trajectory that we will be able to make some significant changes in the SIP provisions and be able to allow a number of activities which are currently restricted or prohibited to recommence.”
In that respect, he declared that “we are increasingly optimistic about the way things are going on that particular front” while maintaining an oft-repeated tone of restraint in his outlook.
While not going into details Mr McLaughlin did offer that the analysis being undertaken was looking at "the areas that posed the least risk based on the number of people and the proximity within which they have to operate in relation to other persons."
Cabinet has been meeting to fine-tune those procedures.
“I still believe we are going to find positive results as we go along with this broader testing," he said, adding, "but I think all indications are that there is not widespread community transmission.”
Premier McLaughlin cautioned that “the countries which have gone too quickly to reopen have invariable have had to lock back down because the virus comes back with a vengeance. We are determined not to let that happen here.”
How and when the restraints are relaxed depend on the results over the coming days of an intensified series of community-wide tests, starting first with front-line medical staff, persons with a health risk, other customer-facing workers, as well as prisoners.
With well over 1,000 tests already carried out and continuing daily, it is hoped that the early results which are showing very few positive cases will be an ongoing pattern.
The intensified testing now being undertaken was expected to be boosted with the expected arrival this week of extraction kits from the UK, a critical tool in the COVID-testing apparatus that is in high demand globally.
While there is no current target for the number of tests to be conducted by the labs at Health Services Authority (HSA) and Doctors Hospital, they have the potential to do 1,000 a week.
There have been persistent calls from the broad business sector for the government to ease the lockdown measures, especially as the period lengthens and the financial losses threaten to become unsustainable.
Premier McLaughlin said consultations have been ongoing with the business sector and others on this issue.
“We do have a plan”, he said but stressed that how it’s implemented is contingent on the results of the accelerated testing now being carried out.
“It’s subject to amendments and adjustments. We’ve been working at it for quite some time and it is contingent on how well the results pan out,” he explained. “There are points when we will be able to trigger various phases of it.”
Saying the plan which is still being fine-tuned is “based on assessed risks”, Mr McLaughlin said the more test results are known will give "a better impression of where in the community the virus is" thereby enabling the government to make an informed decision.
"Principally we go slowly and we open where there is the minimal risk of person-to-person contact.”
In that context, one of the issues that has been occupying the minds of residents has been the government’s decision to close the public beaches.
It's a thorny issue and Premier McLaughlin sought to set the matter to rest definitively now that the easing of restrictions is pending.
The clear message is that the beaches are not yet on the priority list.
“I know that this a very sore point with many, many people,” he admitted.
But, he reminded, “anyone who has is being fair about this will know that for weeks and weeks we pleaded, I in particular, pleaded with people to be reasonable about how they operated on the beaches so as not to exacerbate the risk of community transmission of the virus.”
Noting that it became impossible for the police to monitor activities on all the beaches, the Premier said the decision - as was announced previously - was taken to close them to the public, largely due to non-compliance, or as he put it; “by the way the way people behaved over the past few weeks on the beaches.”
“Until we reach a point where it is reasonably safe for people to gather in clusters, we are not going to be able to reopen the beaches.”
Mr McLaughlin was however hopeful that that point comes sooner rather than later” as he felt it the closure out of necessity still penalizes the majority of people who conduct themselves reasonably.
He was however adamant that “what we cannot risk for all the sacrifices that we have made is for people to have a nice time on the beaches for one weekend and then two weeks alter the hospital is overrun with COVID-19 cases.”
In the interim, however, it was hinted that there might be an early reprieve for pool owners and pool maintenance companies.
The first cautious steps on the road back to normality are already been taken.
The vital service of the post office is being restored gradually with limited openings this week with one outlet on each of the three islands providing basic services including mail sorting and delivery to individual boxes within post offices.
The outlook for the tourism industry is less optimistic.
That industry, a pillar of Caymans economy, has felt the full brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic. The cruise sector was its first real global casualty with numerous deaths and the consequential financial impact which has practically stricken the industry.
Locally, that has thrown up several challenges affecting not just businesses but most of their employees who are work-permit holders.
The government has already taken several steps to alleviate their plight directly plight including amending to the immigration legislation as well as making arrangements for their repatriation.
His Excellency, the Governor, Martyn Roper, has outlined that early next week, a flight will depart to La Ceiba, Honduras. Those workers and others booked to travel there are advised to take with them a doctor's certificate proving that they are COVID-19 free as required by the Honduran authorities.
A flight to Mexico is now scheduled for Friday May 1st for Mexicans preapproved by the Mexican Government. They will be contacted directly by Cayman Airways while flights to Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic are expected to be announced for next week.
Governor Roper has also announced that a charted Briitish Airways flight for this Tuesday had been fully booked with 40 Philippine nationals working here among the passengers.
Flights destined for Miami on May 1st are also full while a private charter to Canada (which will allow for pets) is being organised by a private individual.
The Governor said further flights will be considered based on demand.
An announcement is also expected regarding private sector funding to assist with repatriation flights to help those in need of financial assistance.