Empty Storebay beach, Tobago during the lockdown.

If 70 per cent of Tobagonians get vaccinated against COVID-19, the island’s beaches may be reopened, Tobago House of Assembly (THA) Chief Secretary Ancil Dennis has said.

Speaking on Tuesday at the Magdalena Grand Resort after an announcement that a 200-room Marriott hotel would be built on the island, Dennis said, “If we can get to a point of vaccinating maybe 70 per cent of the population, there might be some possibility for us to enjoy the reopening of the beaches and a return of more meaningful domestic tourism,” Dennis said.

He said hoteliers were able to “breathe” in the midst of the pandemic when domestic tourism was allowed before this latest lockdown.

Dennis said the Government was doing its part to continue to support hoteliers. He said the hoteliers are also expected to make serious efforts to survive the current economic hardships brought on by the pandemic.

“We must understand that in order for us to return to some semblance of normalcy, it depends on the safety that is guaranteed in doing so, and based on the information that is available to me, that safety can only be guaranteed through vaccination,” Dennis said.

Asked about issues raised by some hoteliers about not being able to access Government grants, Dennis said in several cases, those businesses did not qualify. He said some businesspeople had not been paying their taxes or making National Insurance (NIS) payments for their employees.

Dennis said issues related to reopening activity are not unique to T&T.

“Governments all over the world are grappling with this and that is why you will find a number of them have turned to drastic measures, making vaccinations mandatory because again, based on the information available to me, it is the only way for us to return to some level of normalcy.”

Asked if his comment about beaches reopening came after discussions with Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley, Dennis said he was not willing to discuss the details of those conversations. He said the Prime Minister gave a commitment to reopening some sectors at the end of September based on vaccination rates.

“I am simply saying that if you want the beaches to reopen, vaccination will be the way to get to that point. February 2022 soon come and maybe we have to vaccinate in order to gyrate when that time comes,” Dennis said.

Meanwhile, Health Secretary Tracy Davidson-Celestine said she was disappointed in the low vaccination rate on the island.

Davidson-Celestine said given Tobago’s small adult population, the island should have been able to cross the threshold for herd immunity already.

She said the THA has tried to educate Tobagonians on the benefits of taking the vaccine.

“We are using our communication approaches to get the message across and of course to use the influencers, the churchmen, the leaders in the church, to encourage their followers to get vaccinated,” she said.

Davidson-Celestine said the island’s medical facilities cannot cope with an increase of cases, as there was limited medical staff. She said officials from the Ministry of Health have been visiting Tobago consistently to ensure their systems are robust enough to handle the cases.

She said so far, Tobago has received $100 million in COVID-19 support from the Central Government.

“The first $50 million was spent in a number of ways: to bring our systems up to date, to pay our suppliers so we can ensure that our systems are as fluid as much as possible and also to treat with gratuity for the staff because you have to treat with levels of motivation, because we are in this for the long haul,” she said.

Davidson-Celestine said several weeks ago, the THA received another $50 million to assist Tobagonians with rental assistance grants, food and to ensure suppliers were paid.

She said she believes the Delta variant of the virus could already be in Tobago and urged Tobagonians to get vaccinated.

Davidson-Celestine said there were “one or two” cases on the island of fully vaccinated people dying from the virus but she believes pre-existing conditions caused their deaths.

“For instance, if someone has COVID and that person is fully vaccinated and that person has heart challenges or kidney challenges, that person is likely to die, especially if the person comes down from a stroke. In such a circumstance, the vaccine would not protect that person from death because the major factor is the kidney or the heart condition that that person has,” she said.