As pandemic quarantines go, this might be the best: sprawling on a hotel balcony overlooking azure Caribbean waters as you bake gently in the sun.
But it isn’t enough for some.
The past month has seen a slew of high-profile cases of tourists getting in trouble for breaking the rules while on a sun-and-sand vacation.
In December, Skylar Mack, an American student, was jailed for two months when she flew to the Cayman Islands and, instead of quarantining for two weeks at her hotel as the law obliged her to do, popped out two days later to attend a jet ski competition in which her boyfriend was competing.
In January, former British beauty queen and model Zara Holland and her boyfriend Elliott Love quarantined at her four-star hotel in Barbados for the required five days, before taking a second PCR test, as is required for travelers from high risk countries. So far, so good – except that when Love’s second test came back positive, rather than face further quarantine, the couple made a dash to the airport to try and catch a flight home.
Then there was the British couple, again in Barbados, who tried to spice up self-isolation by inviting a local resident over for sex (she was caught climbing over the hotel fence), and the Jamaican tourist who popped out of his hotel quarantine for a soft drink – and has ended up doing jail time.
Staying put in the sun seems like the easiest thing anyone’s been asked to do so far in the pandemic – so why are people breaking the rules?
“Whenever people are presented with an extremely frightening scenario, previous research has shown that they switch off,” says clinical psychologist Bhavna Jani-Negandhi, who believes that health warnings should be at an “optimal level for people to take notice.”
In the case of, say, the harmful effects of smoking, warnings can be tailored up or down, to increase the chance of people taking note. But with regulations that need to be kept at a certain level to protect the local population, it’s not possible to beat about the bush.
In the pandemic, says Jani-Negandhi, “facts cannot be tailored. It seems that some people are behaving in a manner that would suggest they are switching off to the facts – believing that it will not happen to them and that only the most vulnerable are at risk.”
What’s more, according to one travel industry expert, the lack of coherency on travel restrictions across the globe doesn’t help.
“There’s no consistency, and travelers are being badly misled by the fact that there are no global rules,” says Paul Charles, Virgin Atlantic’s former director of communications who now runs his own PR consultancy, The PC Agency, and has become something of a thorn in the UK government’s side over its regular flip-flopping of travel regulations.
Charles has a vested interest in getting the travel industry back up and running, of course; but he believes a global approach, led by the G20 countries, would be the ideal way forward.
He says that a “global consistent testing program, so that everybody could be tested on departure with high-quality results within 30 minutes” would transform the way we are currently traveling (or not).
However, in the meantime, he says, any restrictions have to be enforced for travelers to behave them.
“I think the rules have to be fully supported by law – in a pandemic, you have to have strict enforcement so you achieve the outcome of lower infection rates and lower deaths,” he says.
“That’s perhaps been one of the issues – governments haven’t backed up tougher rules with tougher enforcement. Economies around the world are being ruined because people are breaking the law, meaning tougher measures are being put in place for longer.”
‘It only takes one uncaring person’
Strict enforcement is exactly what the Cayman Islands are going for. As far back as January 2020, “We began planning and preparing for what we expected to be the eventual arrival of the virus on our shores,” says Roy Tatum, Head of the Office of the Premier, Alden McLaughlin.
Early measures included bans on travel from affected countries, and additional screening of arrivals. But despite precautions, the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed in March. In response, the islands closed their borders and implemented a 14-day quarantine in government-controlled facilities for anyone entering the country, as well as implementing lockdowns and curfews, closing schools, and restricting access to care homes, hospitals, prisons and breaches.
The result? As of January 10, just 359 cases and two deaths during the entire pandemic.
“We have sacrificed much since the initial lockdown at the end of March, which has helped eliminate the virus within our local community,” says Tatum. “Today, people are able to live somewhat normal lives and many businesses have been able to open.
“The only way the virus is able to reinfect our community is if it arrives on our shores from the outside.”
Currently, entry to the Cayman Islands is limited to residents and a handful of other people with links to the islands and its residents.
But since “hundreds” of residents were prosecuted and fined for breaking the initial lockdown, there have been just seven potential quarantine breaches investigated, two of which have gone to court.
Skylar Mack was visiting her boyfriend, Vanjae Ramgeet, a Cayman Islands resident, when she fell foul of the law in November.
Allowed in as the partner of a resident, she should have quarantined for two weeks.
Instead, after just two days, she removed the tracking device that was making sure she stayed in one place, and joined her boyfriend at his jet ski event.
When police caught up with her, she was found to be not wearing a mask, and not social distancing.
Her initial sentence of four months in jail was halved on appeal in December. Ramgeet received an equal sentence.
But despite protestations from her family, who appealed to US President Donald Trump for help, and received a supportive tweet from his son, Eric, the authorities of the Cayman Islands – a self-governing British Overseas Territory – have not backed down.
“Should Covid-19 become widespread in our small community it would be potentially devastating,” says Tatum.
“We are talking about a disease that has the ability to kill people and destroy an economy. That the reason why anyone who deliberately flouts the important public health laws and regulations of our Islands that are in place to protect the wider population, should be subject to strict penalties.
“There also needs to be a deterrent to ensure people understand the seriousness of the virus and the importance of the public health law and regulations.
“It only takes one careless, uncaring person to move about our community to create serious health issues, including potential death by restarting community transmission.
“We have a small population and a close community that still treasures and respects our elders, who, as we all know, are very high risk.
“In addition, if the Cayman Islands had to go back into a lockdown situation, the effect on our local economy, and the impact on our children, elderly and indeed the broader population, would be considerable.”
‘You must be held accountable’
So far this year, it’s Barbados that has hit the headlines for tourists behaving badly, as they flock to the Caribbean. Many of thse traditional alternative winter sun destinations are out of bounds due to closed borders, which perhaps explains the slew of offenders descending on the region.
When Elliott Love, ensconced in the plush beachside Sugar Bay hotel, tested positive, he and girlfriend Zara Holland cut off their quarantine wristbands and checked out.
They caught a taxi to the airport and attempted to board a plane for the nine-hour flight back to the UK, knowing that the new UK variant is thought to be up to 70% more transmissible.
They were arrested as they went through security on December 29. Holland was given a $12,000 (US$5,900) fine, instead of a nine-month prison sentence, and was bailed for an undisclosed amount. Love – who was tried several days later, when he was no longer testing positive for the virus – was fined $8,000 ($4,000).
Neither Holland or the couple’s lawyer responded to a request for comment.
But they’re not the only tourists behaving badly in Barbados. On January 1, Swiss national Ismail Elbagli was fined $6,000 (US$3,000) when he left the hotel where he was quarantining, having tested positive.
Elbagli argued that his wife had received a call confirming a negative test that morning, and assumed it covered both of them. His fine was reduced from $8,000 in light of the circumstances.
And on December 31, Jamaican tourists Dean George Scott was jailed for six months when he walked out of the hotel where he was quarantining to buy a can of Fanta.
In reaction to social media outcry that white tourists were being fined, while the only Black rule-breaker was jailed, Chief Magistrate Ian Weekes told the court that prison terms were a last resort, if paying a fine was not an option.
Sure enough, days later, Brits Andrew Luker and Julia Knightley were fined $6,000 (US $2,955) each for inviting a resident to their hotel room for sex, during their quarantine period.
Neither the Barbados tourist board nor the government were available to comment on the restrictions.
However, Acting Chief Medical Officer Dr Kenneth George has laid the blame for the island’s increasing case numbers partially at the door of rule-breaking tourists.
And in a video posted to Facebook shortly before Holland’s trial, Prime Minister Mia Mottley said: “We are very clear that on those persons who are visiting us, and to the extent that anyone is breaching our protocols, the government of Barbados through the Covid Monitoring Unit will take the necessary action for any visitors.
“We believe that by far the majority of them are compliant, but the handful who have chosen to ignore our mores, ignore our customs, ignore our laws and guidelines… you must be held accountable.”
Why one traveler broke the rules
So what’s going on in the heads of people when they break the law when traveling?
For one rule-breaker, it was merely the idea of seeing how far they could go.
The UK resident, who requested to remain anonymous for fear of losing his job, told CNN he traveled from London to Venice for a vacation in June while the UK was still in lockdown and all but essential travel was banned.
“It was at the end, when lockdown was about to be lifted, and the news was saying how people are booking holidays and everything was getting booked up. I thought, I want to travel, but not with the crowds – when it’s still quiet,” he says.
“I’d seen images of famous landmarks being empty, so it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance.”
At the time, Italy was allowing travelers from the UK, so he was breaking no rules on arrival, even though he was on departure. “I didn’t see it as breaking the rules too much – I was thinking for myself, basically,” he says.
“Italy was more safe at that point than the UK, so by going, Italy was more at risk – but they were the ones with the open borders.”
He flew via Dublin, which was locked down at the time, but allowing transit passengers.
“But I had a couple of hours between flights and out of curiosity wanted to test what happened,” he says.
So instead of staying in the airport, as he was obliged to do, he went outside – and nobody stopped him.
“I was looking for a bus to the city center to see if there was time to get a Guinness. But there was no shuttle, and with nothing running I didn’t want to spend too much money on Ubers.”
The UK traveler doesn’t see his infractions in the same light as those travelers to the Caribbean who he calls “bad” and “irresponsible.”
But he says that one thing that made him feel comfortable with traveling when he shouldn’t, was seeing footage of travelers arriving in the UK at the start of lockdown. The UK never closed its borders (and has only recently stopped arrivals from countries exposed to the new South African variant); but when Passenger Locator Forms and then quarantine were introduced, travelers were filmed arriving, clearly unaware of the restrictions.
“That’s why I felt pretty safe [breaking the rules],” he says.
He also says that on return to the UK’s Stansted airport, he was not asked for his Passenger Locator Form, or told to quarantine for 14 days, as he was obliged to do at that point. He did do so, though says that a couple of days afterward, quarantine restrictions were lifted so he ventured out.
Psychologist Bhavna Jani-Negandhi says his behavior is understandable.
“When people see others break the rules, then they could wonder why different rules apply and they might try getting away with it,” she says.
But for some, arriving in countries where the travel restrictions are enforced by the law may come as a sharp surprise.