Charting Cayman's future

At the beginning of 2020, the concept of a global lockdown would have been unfathomable. Months later, the devastating effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on lives and livelihoods around the world remains hard to comprehend.

Even in the Cayman Islands, where the spread of the virus has been successfully suppressed, COVID-19 has caused upheavals in every aspect of daily life. As the world looks to define a "new normal," many people are taking the opportunity to pause, reflect and reimagine a better future.

To date, the Cayman Islands has been spared the worst of the public health crisis due to the government’s swift and decisive actions to close borders in March and implement an island-wide lockdown in April. Combined with widespread testing and the community’s broad cooperation in adopting social distancing, wearing of masks and good hygiene practices, COVID-19 has been all but eliminated in the Cayman Islands today. Safety remains the first priority, as public and private sectors continue to research, iterate and implement plans for economic recovery, assuming there are no short-term solutions or vaccines to inoculate the Cayman Islands against COVID-19.  

Dart CEO Mark VanDevelde said many challenges remain.

“As a community, we have worked hard to reach the position we are in today, with no active cases, no curfews and a reopened domestic economy," he said. "However, while life is slowly returning to a semblance of normality for many, there are entire sectors of the economy that remain locked down with months of earning no income. Even when borders reopen, it will likely take years for global tourism to reach the pre-pandemic rates of travel. To help preserve jobs and keep local businesses alive, we must shop, spend and support local.”

Economic relief efforts 

The Cayman Islands has experienced an unprecedented economic fallout from the pandemic, with many families suffering a devastating loss of income. The local community was quick to respond to those in need, with an outpouring of support to supply food and financial aid. Charities and civic-minded individuals sprang into action to coordinate food preparation and deliveries to families throughout the lockdown period, while the government expanded existing financial support programmes and launched new initiatives to help people through these difficult times. 

“The Cayman community spirit was on full display as the humanitarian crisis emerged,” said VanDevelde. “There were numerous instances of kindness, generosity and community spirit as people gave their time and money to support others. At Dart, we have collaborated with government, private sector and non-profit organisations to provide help and resources where we could."

In addition to funds donated to food charities including Feed Our Future and the Cayman Food Bank, in April Dart played a role in the Cayman Islands’ procurement of 165,000 COVID-19 test kits paid for by local philanthropist Susan Olde by chartering a Gulfstream V to bring the test kits from South Korea.  

“It was an extraordinary feat for a small jurisdiction to secure such a large volume of kits during the height of the pandemic, and doing so has been a game-changer for Cayman’s management of the virus,” said VanDevelde. “It is also testament to the level of cooperation between citizens and public and private entities that gives this jurisdiction such strength.” 

Collaboration was core to the idea behind the R3 Cayman Foundation, a non-profit organisation established in May to support disaster readiness and relief and recovery efforts in the Cayman Islands. Seeded with a US$1 million donation from Ken Dart, the R3 Foundation has already contributed more than US$350,000 to COVID-19 pandemic relief efforts. 

"By setting up an independent, grant-making entity, the intention was to pool private sector resources to better coordinate contributions to relief and recovery efforts and multiply their impact in the community,” said VanDevelde. “Ken Dart’s commitment to match donations up to an additional US$4 million effectively doubles the value of every donation. R3 has an independent board of directors that determines how those funds are allocated, not just in response to COVID-19, but also for any future disasters or emergencies.”

Economic recovery 

To move beyond the relief phase, VanDevelde recognises the role economic activity will play in a sustainable recovery. 

“No government can sustain prolonged periods of multiple financial aid programmes, especially when their own revenues have been halved,” said VanDevelde. “To invigorate the economy beyond what the domestic market is generating, logically the next priority must be to find a safe way to reopen our borders, taking the same careful approach the government has demonstrated throughout the crisis.” 

The government has announced a soft reopening of borders on 1 October (previously announced as September in the 7 August print edition of this article), replacing the current 14-day quarantine with the requirement for international arrivals to take a PCR (short for polymerase chain reaction) test pre- and post-arrival, and to wear a health-monitoring device called a BioButton. They will then self-isolate at home for five days. 

The BioButton could have uses beyond facilitating tourism, VanDevelde said.

"As an employer, we would be interested in extending the BioButton to the workplace, especially for those in jobs with high levels of public interaction," he said. "It would not only enhance employee safety, but would extend the overall network of wearers for the contact tracing programme."

VanDevelde said there was no established blueprint to deal with COVID-19.

“Countries around the world are facing the same challenge, especially those dependent on tourism,” said VanDevelde. “Until there is a vaccine, we must find a way to make travelling as safe as possible for both residents and visitors to stimulate the local economy. Many people in our community, both the employees and the business owners, depend upon international visitors. Our challenge is to adapt and innovate.” 

Dart’s hotel portfolio, which includes The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, Kimpton Seafire Resort + Spa and Le Soleil d’Or, has put in place rigorous measures to ensure the health and safety of both employees and guests. While the hotels are currently open for staycations, they are operating at only a small fraction of their normal capacity.  

With the slowdown in tourism and the overall economic impact of COVID-19, the government is projecting an 11.4% drop in gross domestic product and the loss of nearly 9,000 jobs, with government revenues down by CI$250 million in 2020. 

“The government’s fiscal prudence in recent years has put them in a strong position with a decent surplus to help weather the storm without having to borrow yet, as governments elsewhere have been forced to do,” said VanDevelde. “With a strong financial services sector and private investors, including Dart, willing and able to continue investing in the Cayman Islands, we are well placed to come back strong.” 

Dart is investing more than US$115 million in two projects at Camana Bay alone — a new commercial office building and a 10-storey residential tower that VanDevelde says are continuing as planned. 

“The demand for commercial office space has not abated as we see local companies expanding and new businesses choosing to relocate to Cayman," he said. "Camana Bay is a very desirable location both for commercial offices and individuals who want to live in the town.” 

“In addition, our plans to reopen the former Comfort Suites under a new brand are on track for the next year, and we have various projects in the pipeline, including a new hotel concept in the Seven Mile Beach area. These projects not only provide jobs in the short-term and revenues for local companies and government, but they also mean we will be well-positioned to accommodate future growth. The time to invest in the future is now.” 

Future investment means ideas as well as money. As economist Milton Friedman famously said, “Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”  

The Strategic Economic Advisory Council established by the government in April seeks to identify innovative and creative ideas to diversify and grow the economy and chart a better future for the Cayman Islands. As a council member, VanDevelde was involved in evaluating the top 24 ideas presented by the network of advisory groups from across six sectors and making recommendations to the various ministries and statutory authorities regarding their implementation. 

“The changes the Strategic Economic Advisory Council recommended address issues of sustainability, global competitiveness and quality of life for residents," said VanDevelde. "We have a collective opportunity to make the Cayman Islands even better and stronger for everyone who lives here. If we have the foresight and fortitude to adapt and innovate, we can shift our course, and even if only by a degree or two, the long-term benefits will be significant. Dart remains confident in the future of the Cayman Islands as one of the world’s best places to live, work, play and invest.”

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This article appears in print in the August 2020 edition of Camana Bay Times.

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