For many islands in the Caribbean, the coronavirus presents an impossible dilemma.
Some islands have closed to visitors to protect their citizens but severed a key economic lifeline. Others have remained open to tourism and risked exposing a populace to a pandemic that has overwhelmed the capabilities of far richer countries.
While being an island nation would seem to provide a geographic advantage to preventing the spread of the coronavirus, the economies of most islands in the Caribbean rely heavily on the money that tourists bring with them when they come to vacation.
Shut it down
Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean, is a good example of what the entire region faces.
It shut down to all commercial travel in late March after the first cases of the coronavirus, brought by visiting Italian tourists, were reported.
Four months later, the island’s extensive public health system has flattened the curve of new cases but is still struggling to completely rid the island of the virus that so far has infected 2,555 people and taken 87 lives, according to Cuban government figures.
Usually log jammed with tourists, the streets of Old Havana are now almost deserted.
Nelson Rodríguez Tamayo, the owner of the popular restaurant El Café, has been able to reopen as restrictions in Havana eased. But as tourists used to make up 80% of his clientele, the once bustling eatery is now empty most days.
“It was completely a disaster, we collapsed. We go down,” he said. “I feel like I start again the business and its really difficult, I don’t where I am going.”
Rodriguez said had laid off several of his staff and was working on creating dishes more to geared Cubans as he waits to see how many more weeks or even months until Cuba reopens.
The toll of losing tourists
He is not alone. Across the island, Cubans who rent Airbnbs, drive classic cars or sell food to restaurants have taken an economic hit. The Cuban government, which owns all the large hotels on the island, has seen revenue plunge and promised to make some changes to the centralized economic model to ease the pain.
In July, the Cuban government opened hotels on isolated keys off the coast of the island, promising international visitors a vacation in country that has kept the spread of the virus down. To date though, no tourists have come.
“We have gone four months without tourism, which signifies a sustained loss of income,” said Cuban Economy Minister Alejandro Gil Fernández during a TV appearance.
During that appearance, officials announced that because of the economic calamity caused by the coronavirus and new Trump administration sanctions, the Cuban government would soon open stores selling food in US dollars, the currency of Cuba’s Cold War foe.
The economic strain caused by the coronavirus is being felt across the globe but in the Caribbean where so much of the local economy is dependent on tourism, the tap has been turned off almost overnight.
Frank Comito, the CEO and Director General of Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association, said in just three weeks in March, occupancy at the hotels his organization represents dropped from 76% to 10%.
“It varies, but it certainly is critical and essential to just about every jurisdiction in the Caribbean,” Comito told CNN. “We are seeing some indications of areas that have had less of an impact, but it’s way too early to really see us climbing out of this in any significant way.”
Comito said his association is working with hotels to improve safety training and implement a system for reporting coronavirus cases at their properties while the Caribbean waits to see when tourism will rebound.
Not so fast
Some countries are already witnessing the peril of reopening too soon.
The Bahamas reopened to tourism on July 1 after a two-month lockdown, confident the islands had the spread of coronavirus under control.
Almost immediately, the number of cases in the Bahamas spiked. Many tourists came from Florida, which has had more than 430,000 coronavirus cases, a figure larger than the entire population of the Bahamas.
Warning of a “grave health crisis,” Bahamian Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis in July first suspended commercial air travel with the United States and then ordered that all arriving visitors would need to go into quarantine at a government isolation facility for two weeks and then test negative for the coronavirus.
Essentially stopping all tourism will likely prove devastating for many in the Bahamas. On some islands, locals have set up food banks to help those who work in the tourism industry from keeping going hungry.
The stunning pink sand beach on the Bahamian tourist destination Harbour Island is mostly empty these days, but residents have, with government help and private donations, set up a food distribution system to feed people in need, many of whom are unemployed tourism industry workers.
Volunteers with the Briland Food Bank now every two weeks supply groceries and other necessities to more than 3,000 people in need, said William Simmons, a school principal who is one of the organizers of the drive.
“This community, we pull together when we need to,” Simmons said. “The number of hours people have started volunteering their time packing the groceries, distributing them using their own vehicles, coming in to help with the database. It makes you feel this is a good place to be because we are going to do whatever we have to so everyone is OK.”