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Cayman & Covid-19: The little island that did

Amid the fear and anxiety of the coronavirus pandemic the Cayman Islands had emerged as a safe haven in an uncertain world. Leaders of the tiny palm fringed islands in the Caribbean Sea have received international recognition for their handling of the crisis. And Cayman’s reputation as a safe, upscale destination with a first world infrastructure has been enhanced. The borders remain closed for now to protect the progress made in snuffing out COVID-19. It may be a short while before tourists and vacation home owners are able to return to this quiet paradise. But when visitors do come back it will be with the peace of mind that there are few more secure places on the planet.

For Sheena Conolly, Broker/Owner of Sotheby’s International Realty on Grand Cayman, modern infrastructure, strong and stable leadership and a tight-knit community have been the key ingredients of Cayman’s success in the fight against the coronavirus. It is those same elements, says Ms Conolly, that will position the island as one of the most desirable places to visit and to live in the aftermath of crisis. “I believe that being safe in a community that cares will become increasingly important after COVID-19,” she said. “This coupled with our climate and first-world sophistication, should enable Cayman to compete head on and win the hearts and minds of the most discerning investors and visitors.” As a tax-neutral offshore business centre with world class beaches, scuba diving and fine dining, Cayman has always been the gold standard for the Caribbean. The island’s proactive response to the coronavirus and the collective effort of the community to ensure that everyone was protected highlighted a less heralded attribute of the three-island archipelago. “The Cayman Islands were founded upon the principles of everyone working together to help each other in a very small community,” says Ms Conolly. “This is one of the most unique and differentiating facts of our small island nation.”

Public health officials have now tested more than forty percent of the population – the third highest per-capita testing rate in the world. Out of just over 29,173 test results (at time of posting), the island had just 203 positive cases, the majority of them asymptomatic.

As of today there are no active cases (date) on the island and many of the suppression measures designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have been lifted. In a televised speech in mid June, the island’s Premier Alden McLaughlin praised the heroes who he said had shielded the islands from the worst impacts of the pandemic. “I am confident and delighted that Government’s decisions, strategy and sacrifice have paid off,” he said. “We have avoided the tragedy that has played out in so many other countries, but we need to remain vigilant.”

It has been a mix of vigilance, community sacrifice and solidarity that has helped the islands weather the worst of the crisis. It is no coincidence that #caymanstrong and #caymankind have been the trending hashtags on social media over the past few months. Strength, kindness and a spirit of co-operation between the many nationalities that call Cayman home have characterized the island’s response to the pandemic. For many residents from overseas, the experience has only strengthened their connection with the islands. “I have personally spoken to many of our high net-worth clients who are delighted they made the decision to relocate to the Cayman Islands, they feel safe and protected with the proactive approach to COVID-19,” said Ms Conolly.

The virus first reached the shores of Grand Cayman in mid-March when an Italian cruise ship passenger was transported to a local hospital from a visiting ship after suffering a double heart-attack. He was later diagnosed with the virus and died in hospital. The islands’ leaders reacted swiftly and drastically to ensure that Cayman’s first COVID-19 fatality was also its last.

I believe that being safe in a community that cares will become increasingly important after COVID-19

Sheena Conolly

Schools, gyms, bars and movie theaters were quickly shut down, cruise ships were banned and the borders were closed to visitors. A series of community curfews and lockdowns followed with business and social life suspended as government announced a survival plan titled ‘Stay Home Cayman’. At the outset, Mr. McLaughlin spelled out the country’s strategy – lives would come before money or politics. “I don’t want a single one of my people, and that includes everyone who resides here, to die of this disease. That’s what we’re aiming for,” he said in a public address according to an article in Forbes Magazine, which lauded Cayman’s swift and successful response to the pandemic. “It could be you, it could be your mother, your grandmother, your sister, your auntie, your uncle, your father. No one is trying to make your life more difficult. We are trying to save it. Please help us.” The vast majority of Cayman Islanders – a diverse group encompassing a 50-50 split of locals and expatriates from nearly 200 different countries – responded to that call. Despite unprecedented restrictions on liberty, the plan received almost total co-operation. Government maintained constant communication throughout with a panel including the Premier, the Chief Medical Officer and the Governor, who is the UK’s representative on the island, updating the public in daily televised press briefings. Thankfully, the island’s three hospitals did not face the overwhelming demand that many had feared. Emergency infrastructure, including additional ventilators, intensive care beds and a fully-equipped field hospital were put in place – but they were not needed.

The cornerstone of the islands’ response to the health emergency was one of the most meticulous and intensive COVID-19 testing programmes seen anywhere in the world. Leveraging its partnership with the UK, the Cayman Islands was able to procure 200,000 COVID-19 test kits from South Korea at a time when much larger, better resourced nations were struggling to bring such supplies to their shores. And so began a policy of ‘test, trace and isolate’ as public health officials worked to track down every last case of the virus and eliminate it from the islands.

Governor Martyn Roper, speaking at a press conference in June, said the policy had paid off. “We should be proud of our islands. We’ve effectively created a safe bubble and we are one of the safer places in the world right now,” he said. Cayman’s British connection also enabled an ‘air bridge’ to remain open between London and Grand Cayman, maintaining a safe connection with the rest of the world. The governor’s office was able to arrange evacuation flights to all corners of the earth for residents that needed or wanted to leave, though many chose to stay. The cargo port remained open throughout the crisis to ensure that supermarket shelves were fully stocked.

As Cayman comes out the other side of the crisis, the focus is now switching to when and how visitors can return. Getting the tourism industry back on track has been identified as a key goal for the islands’ economic well being. A committee has been established to reopen the borders and both visitors and potential investors are knocking on the door to return.
While Miami Beach was closed over the July 4 weekend, Cayman Islands residents enjoyed luxurious staycations, swimming and snorkeling in relative relaxation from the fear that still engulfs much of the world. Finding a safe way to share that privilege is now the top priority for the island’s leaders.

Cayman Islands Flag

The longer term picture is that Cayman is emerging from the shadow of the coronavirus with a sense of confidence and optimism. The pandemic has forced a rethink for many people about how and where they want to live. The bustle of congested urban centers is suddenly a lot less appealing. And the attraction of island-life is only enhanced. It is an equation that Ms Conolly believes will have more people thinking about the Cayman Islands – a place that can boast both the trappings of paradise and the security and sophistication of the first world. Sotheby’s has continued to show properties throughout the crisis, using Matterport 3D virtual tours and live video conference calls. While many in the real-estate industry predicted a slump in sales values associated with COVID-19, Ms Conolly says that has not been the case. Several of the islands’ highest sales on record have been closed since April of this year. The pandemic may have changed many things in the world over the past few months but the desirability of the Cayman Islands as a place to live is not one of them. Ms Conolly said, “Some things remain constant in these three little islands; the beautiful beaches, crystal-clear water, the melting pot of cultures, each one celebrating the other’s beliefs and diversities, and the warm, welcoming atmosphere.”

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