Emotions of every kind erupted at Owen Roberts International Airport Saturday afternoon in what could have been scenes straight out of the classic film ‘Love Actually’, as Cayman’s borders were unlocked under phase 4 of government’s reopening plan.
“I’m getting to meet my new grandson and see my other one I haven’t seen since January of 2020… it’s wonderful,” Bonnie Arnold said as she relished the embraces she had been waiting more than 20 months for as she was greeted by her family at the airport.
It was an emotional, exciting moment for many like Arnold, as cheers and tears flowed after near two years of separation for some families, who are now able to reunite without the need for quarantine.
Arnold was among passengers on JetBlue, the first international flight to arrive in Cayman under phase 4.
There were six others arriving on Saturday from destinations including Boston, Miami and Tampa.
Passengers, some of whom were seen cheering and videoing their arrival in Grand Cayman as they emerged from their JetBlue plane, were treated to steelpan music, dances from the Dream chasers group and soca from local duo Musical Crew’s Irving Hernandez and Johnny Johnson.
Moments like that, and the opportunity for Caymanians to get back to work in the tourism industry, are why Tourism Minister Kenneth Bryan said the government was moving ahead with unlocking borders.
“I kinda feel like a kid,” Bryan said as he spoke with the Cayman Compass at the airport.
“I remember feeling this the last time we did it with it JetBlue. You get the atmosphere of the Caribbean and what tourism is really about. I am so honored to be the minister of Tourism for the PACT administration, because tourism is Caymanian and that’s what I’m about, and the vibe, the energy that we are feeling today, the excitement, the smiles on the people’s faces that are getting off the plane talks about the love for Cayman.”
He said visitors who arrived Saturday didn’t pick just any island. They wanted to come to the Cayman Islands.
Bryan said he understood the trepidation that some in the community may be feeling with the removal of quarantine for vaccinated travellers, but these are “baby steps”, he said, assuring that safety remains a priority.
He had strong words for those entering Cayman’s borders.
“Remember, safety first. We as a country, as a people, as a government decided to take this risk for you to have an enjoyment of our beautiful country, so we want to make sure you take serious our protocols and [show] respect to that,” he said, adding, “that means you have to get tested on day two, on day five, on day 10, if you’re here that long. It is not something we are willing to compromise on when it comes to safety.”
As for the local community, Bryan urged those who may feel nervous to steer clear of tourist-like venues.
He also added that the reopening is not only about tourists, but also Caymanians and residents being able to travel more freely.
“When you go away, I’m begging you please, even though you’re not having to quarantine, do not go around people who are vulnerable, until you’re sure you don’t have the virus… And that doesn’t have to be only with travel, that means in your everyday [life], because COVID is here. I want us to think about the safeness of living with the pandemic. Once you follow those protocols you should be fine,” Bryan added.
Arnold, from Buffalo New York, lovingly caressed her newborn grandson, Henry, and his big brother, Luke, as she celebrated touching down in Cayman after being apart from her family for months.
Her son, Gregg, who was happy to see his mom, simply described the moment saying, “it’s great”.
Little Emerson Bartow excitedly welcomed her grandparents, Kathleen and Jon Bartow, outside the airport by waving an adorable sign with red hearts, saying, “I’m here to get my Mimi”.
Though she was too shy to chat with the Cayman Compass, the tiny tot was not shy about showing how happy she was to see her grandparents.
Her dad, Jon, said they were more than excited to have his parents visit Cayman.
“It’s wonderful. We’ve been waiting for a full year to see them and this is their first time visiting us in the Cayman Islands. It’s a beautiful feeling and the grandkids are extremely excited as well,” he said.
For grandparents Jon and Kathleen, it was a precious moment.
“We are so happy to be here,” Kathleen said.
“We’re very, very excited. We’ve been waiting over a year to come visit them after they relocated here and this is a wonderful day. We’re so excited and the welcome is so nice,” Jon senior added.
The JetBlue plane, which arrived in Cayman from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, was greeted with a water cannon salute from the Cayman Island Fire Service.
The crew on the flight did not disembark, as per COVID-19 restrictions.
Bryan urged visitors to enjoy themselves and report back to their friends and family.
“Be happy, build the memories and go back and tell everybody Cayman is ready for opening, but we want to make sure you are staying safe,” he said.
For visitors like Arnold, the removal of quarantine made spending this Thanksgiving with her family possible.
She said she was ecstatic when she heard the news that phase 4 of the reopening was happening 20 Nov. and quarantine was being removed.
“I said, ‘Gregg… get me a ticket’,” she said laughing. Her son said he rebooked the ticket because Arnold was originally expected a week ago, but when quarantine was removed they had to change it.
“It was like… well, what’s the point of quarantining for week,” he added.
Kristina Selin was greeted by her friend who sobbed upon seeing her after almost a year-and-a-half.
“It feels like I’m home… I’m getting very emotional,” she said as she waited anxiously for her friend to arrive.
She said she was happy to return to Cayman and was looking forward to having her husband join her.
“We’ve been waiting for this for such a long time… me and my husband. He’ll follow hopefully in a couple of weeks. It’s just been very exciting. It’s been a long wait and even though everything has been really good back home for us… but still this is our second home and we couldn’t wait to come back here,” she said.
Compass journalist Norma Connolly was among those deplaning the New York flight.
She said the plane seemed quite full, with a mix of returning residents and tourists.
Connolly welcomed the red carpet treatment on the tarmac and shared her experience of using the new process for arrivals.
“Everyone was checked for vaccination certificates, negative PCR tests and travel certs from Travel Cayman before the flight, and again after we landed in Cayman,” she said.
“There are people checking for various documentation at a number of points between getting off the plane and baggage reclaim. Lots of hand sanitising. For me, the entire process took about 45 minutes from landing to leaving the airport. It all seemed to go very smoothly. It was a nice touch to be welcomed back by music, dancers, a red carpet and a water cannon.”
The duty-free shops, many of which had been closed for months, threw open their doors. Passengers were also treated to Cayman’s famous rum punch and rum cake as they exited the arrival hall.
Cayman Airways CEO Fabian Whorms, who was on hand for the arrivals, said CAL is preparing for its own New York return-to-service in December, and is looking forward to some snowbirds making last minute flights.
“We’re hoping it’s going to be very cold and snowy in New York, because that certainly make people take that last minute plunge and come to the Cayman Islands. We’re doing this working with the hoteliers within Cayman and they’re very excited about the capacity that we’ve put in because without the capacity, in terms of airline seats, then they won’t be able to sell their hotel rooms. So it’s a collaborative thing working with the Department of Tourism as well,” Whorms said.
As the travellers made their way out of the airport, some stopped at the doorway and took deep breaths of the sweet Cayman air, before making a dash to get out of the midday heat.
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