Bermuda Government COVID-19 Update July 2, 2020
Good afternoon Bermuda.
Today, I am joined by the Minister of Health the Hon. Kim Wilson, the Minister of Tourism and Transport the Hon. Zane De Silva and the Minister of Finance the Hon. Curtis Dickinson, who will give remarks. The Minister of National Security the Hon. Wayne Caines is available to answer questions from the media. We are also joined by the Acting CEO of the Bermuda Tourism Authority, Mr. Glenn Jones.
I would like to begin my remarks this evening with a sadly familiar refrain. Addressing a malicious message surrounding our young Bermudians who have put their lives on hold to assist Bermuda during this pandemic. And unfortunately, today I’m speaking, again, about Dr. Carika Weldon. Why am I speaking about it is because I’ve been made aware that there are, once again malicious messages circulating via WhatsApp, and social media. I’m going to address those messages point by point.
- The Molecular Diagnostic Laboratory’s laboratory layout and testing operations were reviewed by Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) when first set-up to communicate any necessary changes needed prior to testing;
- As part of the start-up process included sending samples to Helix for cross checking. This is known as a verification process. This was the same process undergone by Helix when the COVID-19 testing began. It required that all positive samples and a percentage of negatives were to be sent to CARPHA for verification. All sample processes included using the nasopharyngeal swab only and these were done and reviewed by PAHO;
- We are currently receiving a high number of negatives – because there’s some insinuation that we’re receiving negatives because the testing is not good. We are receiving a high number of negatives because the aggressive testing that occurred during containment phase, to ensure that there were no missed cases in the community, when positive cases were initially imported. It is a testament to the excellent work that we have done in the community, and as a country that there is a low rate of positives, and this has nothing to do with testing protocols.
Finally, I personally find it interesting that people would be questioning the pooling method which is in use by the Molecular Diagnostic Laboratory, as a reason why the standards are not as high as they should be. When just this week testimony was given to the United States Congress, by none other than Dr. Anthony Fauci, stating that the USA may want to consider pooling to speed up their testing. Our own Dr. Weldon was ten weeks ahead of the United States of America and this protocol was already implemented in Bermuda.
There are those who seek attention and validation by creating lies, or by sharing them. There are those who unquestionably share whatever is forwarded to them without asking questions, engaging critical thought, or even thinking about what they are forwarding may mean to other persons. To those who are engaging in this type of behavior, I ask you to please stop.
And yet beyond that, this latest set of malicious lies fits a pattern that so many young educated, intelligent, and talented Bermudians face when they return home. It is unacceptable, intolerable and offensive. And I cannot and will not let Dr. Weldon, or any other young Bermudian who has put their life on hold, to help their country, be subjected to attacks and abuse of this nature, and no other Bermudian should be either.
At a time when most of us have come together, those among us who seek to disrespect, denigrate, and destroy this young, outstanding, Black, Bermudian, female doctor, or any other Bermudian serving their country should be ashamed of their actions and their outmoded beliefs.
Bermuda has done well. People look at us and say look how well Bermuda has done because countless young Bermudians have risen to the occasion. From testing, to technology, to working on the front lines. We’ve innovated and shown ourselves to be an example for the world. And I urge all of us to dedicate more time and energy to building each other up instead of rushing to tear other Bermudians down.
With that introduction. I’m happy to turn over the mic to the Minister of Health for updates on COVID-19 testing and other matters related to the Ministry of Health.
MINISTER OF HEALTH STATEMENT
Today there were 273 test results received by the Ministry of Health; and none were positive for COVID-19.
Bermuda has 146 total confirmed positive cases. As of today we have only two actives case in Bermuda, of which one is currently hospitalized but not in critical care.
- A total of 135 have recovered, and
- the total deceased remains 9.
The average age of all of our confirmed positive cases is 60 and the age range of all of our positive cases is from 18 to 101 years.
The source of all local cases is as follows:
- 42 are Imported
- 85 are Local transmission, with known contact
- 16 are Local transmission with an unknown contact, and
- 3 are under investigation
Bermuda’s country status is “Local Transmission – Sporadic Cases”. The seven-day average of our real time reproduction number is below 1.
There are now over 9,000 persons registered on HealthIQ. Well done, Bermuda. Keep it coming as we are nearly at the 10,000 target to get a green light on our indicators.
We have been receiving a lot of questions regarding the saliva tests. These have arrived on island but will not be ready for use just yet as they need to go through the regular validation process which requires testing with positive samples. Because we have only two positive cases on island currently, we can’t complete the validation process. However, once this is done, we will be able to use it as part of our screening programmes.
As you all know, today we received the first commercial flight from Toronto. Thanks to an incredible team of professionals from multiple Government departments and agencies, we were well prepared and successfully landed and health screened all arriving passengers.
We set up the new system very fast and we are aware that there were some technical glitches with the online portal to apply for Travel Authorizations. Nevertheless, we are working through those and, importantly, we were able to capture the information we needed.
It disappointed me greatly to learn that at least one passenger from the flight took it upon themselves to breach the obligatory quarantine and visited a local restaurant after getting off the flight. Luckily the individuals were identified and public health and enforcement officials are pursuing the matter now.
With our borders now open once again to commercial flights, I want to stress that this is NOT an indication that we have won the battle against COVID-19, or that we can now relax our protective measures. In fact, it’s quite the contrary. As I have said before, with more freedom, comes more responsibility.
The measures that will keep us safe seem so simple, it can be hard to believe how important they are. But they are our best protection.
Please wash your hands frequently, use hand sanitizer before and after entering any store or public building, shield our medically vulnerable, and continue to wear your mask and keep six feet apart if you are not wearing one.
We have put in place stringent measures for incoming travellers and to ensure we can identify any COVID cases early and isolate immediately. However, with open borders comes the potential to import COVID-19, so we must be diligent in our preventive measures at all times – even more than we have been until now.
With less legal restrictions on our activities, we must still place personal restrictions on our activities. For our mental and physical health it’s important to be active and social, but we must be clear on the risks involved. To help with this, an activity guide has been posted on the Government website today which details some activities on the high and low risk scale.
For example, low risk activities include walking or biking outdoors, which can be with friends if you stay 6 feet apart. Another low-risk activity is dining outdoors, provided that tables are 6 feet apart and diners avoid high-touch items like menus.
Low to medium risk activities include picnicking outside with friends, so long as you keep 6 feet from others, keep groups small, wear masks, and don’t share food or utensils.
Going to the beach and swimming in a pool also fall into this category so long as you physical distance from others, avoid locker rooms, and spend most of your time in motion.
Medium risk activities include a children’s playdate outside, so long as you keep groups small, don’t share food and wear masks.
Conversely, activities that are Medium to high risk include socializing outside with a large group. The more people, the more likely you may be exposed. You should physical distance and wear masks.
Going to the gym is also a medium to high risk activity, but there are many things you can and should do to minimize the risk, which are listed on the guidance note for gyms at coronavirus.gov.bm.
High risk activities include visiting elderly parents or friends who are high-risk for COVID-19. Avoid physical contact with them and meet outside if possible. Don’t visit them if you have symptoms, have been exposed, or might be sick.
This is also not a great time to be dating new people. Outdoor, physically-distanced dates are relatively safe, but avoid close physical contact.
Very high risk activities include attending a big party indoors or being in a large gathering or dense crowds. Avoid these at all costs, unless strictly necessary.
It is more important than ever that we each play our part in keeping our community safe. It’s not by luck that we have avoided community spread so far; it is through our hard work and diligent efforts to follow Government guidelines and directions.
Before closing I want to comment briefly on the latest news that have created a lot of chatter about the island’s health system.
By now the majority of Bermuda would have heard of the merger that took place between Argus Insurance and the two medical practices, Island Health Services and the Family Practice Group. This merger within the private sector took place privately and without Ministry of Health or Bermuda Health Council knowledge or involvement – this is not unlawful, as the law currently stands. Nevertheless, it is an important development in our small health system and so it merits comment.
You would be aware that as a result of this pandemic, much of our worst fears and anxieties about our health system have become a reality. We have businesses that cannot afford health insurance, workers who are unemployed and now uninsured, families who are going without treatment, medications that are out of the reach of seniors. Argus and the medical practices took it upon themselves to try to smooth out some of these rough spots for their specific clients by investing in one another. Though that may be of benefit for their piece of the pie, its impact on the overall health system needs to be considered.
We will continue to pursue a better health system that works for everyone, in good times and bad, and will work with all individuals, businesses, and all sectors to make that a reality. Universal health coverage remains this Government’s goal. We will not squander the lessons that COVID-19 has taught us: that we are much better as a country when we do things in a unified manner and will not neglect what we have lived each day for the last 4 months, which has highlighted the importance of putting the health of our residents first and foremost.
Thank you and stay safe, Bermuda.
Thank you, Minister of Health.
Today marks the first day of the safe opening of our airport to returning commercial traffic. We have examined every aspect of reopening. Many Bermudians who have been stranded overseas since the start of travel restrictions will be returning home and business and tourism visitors are expected to be amongst them.
This Government’s stance, since Bermuda was in Phase 1, was we would not open the airport until we were convinced that we had the appropriate protections in place. The equipment in place, the monitoring measures in place and the strategy in place to keep our Customs Officers, airport staff, hospitality workers and wider community safe from the coronavirus.
Yesterday the Minister of National Security led an exercise at LF Wade International airport which walked through, step by step, the process to ensure that every “I” was dotted and every “T” was crossed in advance of today’s arrivals. We are confident that the health and safety measures Bermuda has put in place, will ensure the safety of our community.
As I have said recently, Bermuda’s entry requirements are amongst some of the toughest in the world. You should see on your screen a graphic that has been created to show the tests those arriving in Bermuda, compared to the rest of the world, or other countries in our region.
- A traveler that does not have the clearance will not be boarded and will therefore not come to Bermuda.
- All visitors coming to Bermuda will be required to be tested when they arrive. Tested on day 3, tested on day 7, and tested on day 14 of their stay. The number of tests required obviously depends on the length of stay.
- We will ensure all Customs Officers, airport workers and officials will have on appropriate PPE and there will be physical distancing measures in place including physical barriers.
- At any point, any visitor who tests positive will be fitted with a quarantine monitoring bracelet and will be required to isolate in their room. If they attempt to leave their room, the monitoring device will alert the authorities who will take the necessary steps to protect our community.
As we have sought to put our people back to work safely, the Minister of Tourism and Transport has been hard at work with industry stakeholders and the Bermuda Tourism Authority to ensure Bermuda is effective at getting tourists back to our shores. Minister De Silva will now provide an update.
MINISTER OF TOURISM AND TRANSPORT STATEMENT
As you know, regular commercial airline services resumed today (July 2nd 2020) at the L.F. Wade International Airport.
The first flight to arrive, Air Canada from Toronto, touched down a few minutes after 1pm today. I would like to commend everyone involved in making sure we were ready to welcome visitors and returning residents back to our island home.
Regarding visitors to Bermuda, we continue to work with the Bermuda Tourism Authority (BTA) to inspire confidence in travelling again, by highlighting that Bermuda is a clean, safe and close jurisdiction that is reopening responsibly – with enhanced COVID-19 mitigation protocols in place by the Ministry of Health, that protect both visitors and the local community. To that end:
- after having paused paid marketing since March 16, the BTA restarted paid placements Wednesday, July 1;
- the BTA’s marketing plan will gradually ramp up through the coming weeks and intensify as we get closer to expected increases in airlift capacity and hotel inventory;
- where to target is based on where there are flights, but also where there is workable flight connectivity – a task more difficult than it used to be, based on severely reduced flight schedules;
- because visitor volume will be lower than normal, there’s a simultaneous inside-out marketing approach, where aspects of the visitor experience will be marketed to locals at the same time they’re marketed to visitors. Examples:
- Golf Week (happening now);
- Independent Retailer Month (happening this month);
- Alfresco Dining Festival and World Tourism Day (in September);
- Yacht & Catamaran Week (in October);
- Spa Month (in November);
- and Staycations (as properties reopen).
All of these are in development and expected to reach finalization soon, based on willingness from on-island stakeholders. The Ministry is also working with the BTA to reach out to vacation rental owners – as well as working closely with hoteliers – to assist with making their safety plans operational.
Next week, the BTA will survey the entire tourism economy to understand who is planning to open, plus when and what they’re doing to keep consumers safe.
That feedback is important, so that visitors are aware of not only when hotels will reopen and what restaurants are back in operation – but also what experiences, tours, retailers, museums, mini car and moped rentals, etc. are available – making sure visitors can be connected with both established and small businesses in the tourism space.
We are also in regular contact with the Bermuda Hotel Association (BHA), who remain committed to ensuring that the appropriate health and safety standards and COVID-19 mitigation protocols are in place at the island’s hotel properties, following Ministry of Health guidelines. For example:
- masks will be worn by all employees in all public areas, staff areas and when working, and education on the correct use of masks will be provided as well;
- hand sanitizer dispensers will be placed in key guest and employee areas, and all encouraged to practice good hygiene frequently and thoroughly;
- signage regarding the Health requirements will be put in place; and,
- both guests and staff will have their temperatures taken when entering buildings.
It is important to realise that the BHA is providing guidance on a good standard for all hotels; however each hotel brand is likely to have additional requirements that are over and above the guidelines being put in place now.
Having worked hard to contain the coronavirus in Bermuda, we will work equally hard to be the destination of choice for those seeking peace of mind in a safe and relaxing locale.
Finally, talks continue with the airline industry regarding airlift to Bermuda. However, I must re-emphasise that flight schedules are still subject to change. Already, I can say that since last week, American Airlines has decided to reinstate its flight from Miami rather than its flight from New York, as I reported to you just a short time ago! At present, the Miami flight is due to start in September.
The ability to overcome challenges and adapt is something Bermuda is known for and I am certain that we will continue to prove our worth as a top-tier tourism destination.
Thank you Minister.
As we work to revive our tourism economy, it is essential that we support our small and medium sized businesses in Bermuda. This government pledged $12 million to support our businesses through what will be a challenging period. Small- and medium-sized businesses have been assisted by the efforts of Bermuda Economic Development Corporation in the wake of this pandemic. These hard working women and men often devote all their waking hours to making a success of their investment.
Supporting them is supporting our community. I’m pleased to advise that as of today, the Bermuda Economic Development Corporation has approved almost one and a half million dollars for 67 small- and medium-sized businesses. These businesses span the entire island, and our aim continues to be to support them, not just in recovery, but for their intended growth.
A further 81 businesses are at various stages of the approval process, and all told we stand to provide, thus far over $4 million in support of small- and medium-sized businesses in Bermuda. This recovery will be built on the foundation of small and medium sized business who command a loyal customer base, and, to a large extent employ a number of Bermudians. Supporting them is supporting our community. For an update on the other initiatives to support our economy, the Ministry of Finance will now address the country. Minister.
THE MINISTER OF FINANCE STATEMENT
As Bermuda continues to ease restrictions relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, and additional sectors of the economy are opening with Phase 4, I am pleased to provide a further update on the Ministry of Finance COVID-19 – Fiscal Plan.
Today, I will cover four areas: an update on the Unemployment Benefit, Contributory Pensions Temporary Amendment Act 2020, information on the process for taking advantage of the National Pension Scheme suspensions, and payroll tax relief for restaurants and bars.
The term of the unemployment benefits has been extended for an additional 4 weeks, for a total of 16 weeks.
Last week, the Ministry of Finance authorized unemployment benefit payments to 6,420 people for a total of $5,518,000. We now have paid benefits to over 10,100 for a total cost of approximately $43 million.
We expect further payments to continue on a bi-weekly schedule, which means another payment on Friday, July 10.
As mentioned earlier, we continue to make progress to resolve problem applications, and last week we paid 332 applicants for the first time.
Approximately 4,500 people have notified the Department of Workforce Development that they have returned to work, and they are no longer receiving unemployment benefits. Our expectation is that this number will continue to grow as Bermuda enters its second week of Phase Four and government continues to actively explore and implement actions to get our people back to work.
I want to reiterate that all individuals and companies must notify the Government of your return to work to confirm your eligibility period.
Please visit www.bermudajobboard.com, follow the link at the top for COVID-19 Unemployment Application, then the link at the top for the Back to Work form.
For those that have already done so, we thank you for the act of responsible citizenship.
For those who have returned to work and have NOT informed us, I want to make one point very clear: if this government determines that individuals and employers are not informing the government in a timely manner of their return to work, causing the government to “overpay” individuals, this government will utilize all of its powers outlined in the Regulations to claw back funds that have been paid to individuals that are no longer eligible for unemployment benefits. As we continue to work together as a community, to restart and rebuild our economy, it should be viewed as unacceptable and irresponsible for individuals that are back to work, and no longer eligible to accept unemployment benefits.
Contributory Pensions Temporary Amendment Act 2020
The Contributory Pensions Temporary Amendment Act 2020 came into force on July 1st. As previously announced this amendment allows for employees, employers, and self-employed persons to suspend payment of their social insurance contributions for the whole of the suspension period (July 1st 2020 – June 30th 2021). Guidelines, FAQs and forms for both employees and employers are located at www.gov.bm. For any questions please contact the Department of Social Insurance at SIsuspend@gov.bm or call their hotline for any suspension related queries at 444-2470.
The National Pension Scheme (Occupational Pensions) Temporary Amendment Act 2020 also came into force yesterday. This amendment allows for a suspension of employee and employer contributions for a twelve month period commencing 1st July, 2020 and ending on 30th June, 2021. The process to take advantage of this concession is as follows:
Once the employee and employer agree on the employee suspension, the employer should write to the plan administrator advising them of the suspension of contributions. The employer may agree with the employee suspension, but still wish to make their contributions. They may do so and the employer must advise their plan administrator accordingly. The reporting to the plan administrator is necessary so that the employer is not reported by the administrator to the Pension Commission as being delinquent. An employer’s continued contributions are not treated as voluntary and as such they are not subject to payroll tax.
If the plan is a defined benefit plan, then the employer does not have to receive the agreement of the employee to make the suspension. This is because the employer is financially responsible for making up any pension shortfalls that may result from suspending the contributions.
Latest Refund Statistics.
I can also provide the latest stats for refunds under the NPS:
Total Applications Received: 6,976
Total Number Approved: 4,382
Total Value of Applications Approved: $49,443,629 25% Refunds Total Applications Received:97 Total Number Approved: 79 Total Value of Applications Approved: $2,482,284 It is pleasing to know the recent hardship withdrawal provisions under the Act has assisted many families over the last few weeks and clearly validates the benefits of this social policy initiative. I can also advised that legislation will be tabled tomorrow which will make additional amendments to the Act and respective regulations to increase the scope of coverage and provide additional access to plan members and former members of defined contribution pension plans as follows:
- by removing the requirement for a member not to be retired for those seeking a $12,000 refund;
- by removing the requirement for persons to be retired for those seeking a 25% refund;
- by removing the requirement for persons to be retired for those seeking a small pensions refund; and
Payroll Tax Relief to Restaurants and Bars On May 21st 2020 Government announced short-term relief from payroll tax to assist the restaurant and bar sector. During the last quarter ending 30th June 2020, payroll tax was set at a zero rate for the restaurant and bar sectors and these businesses ceased deducting payroll tax from employees during this period. I am pleased to advise that this concession has been extended for the next quarter and the Government is considering extending this concession further to include restaurants within hotels that are operating under the general hotel licensing regime. Thank you.
Thank you, Minister of Finance.
This government is acutely aware that many in Bermuda continue to experience high levels of anxiety and depression. In a few short months our entire way of life has been altered. We have had to adapt quickly to changes brought about as a result of this pandemic, and now have to adjust to a new normal.
All of these changes have taken a physical and emotional toll. If you or a loved one have any of the following psychological or physical symptoms, know that there is help available. Please call the Emotional Wellbeing Hotline: 543 1111.
Here are a few of the psychological symptoms of depression, they include:
- continuous low mood or sadness;
- feeling hopeless and helpless;
- feeling irritable and intolerant of others;
- having no motivation or interest in things;
- feeling anxious or feeling worried;
Some physical symptoms of depression include:
- moving or speaking more slowly than usual;
- changes in appetite or weight (usually decreased, but sometimes increased);
- lack of energy;
- disturbed sleep – for example, finding it difficult to fall asleep at night or waking up very early in the morning;
- may withdraw from being around others and socializing; and
- may have changes in risky behavior such as increased alcohol or substance use.
Again the number to call is 543 1111 and persons are there between 9am and 9pm.
There are many in Bermuda who have contributed to the successes we have had in containing the spread of COVID-19 on our shores. Many individuals, companies and organizations have worked hard and sacrificed to get us to the point, where we are able to open our borders safely and restart our economy. I must thank and highlight the local associations together with local and international companies that donated a total of $2.7m so the Bermuda Hospitals Board could purchase life-saving medical equipment for people who contracted COVID-19 and were hospitalized. Amongst the list of essential equipment is an oxygenator, which is currently en route to island.
On behalf of the government and people of Bermuda, I extend a sincere thank you.
I’ve also been made aware that there is a website which is currently being promoted on Facebook, with a story, and quotes attributed to me. Please note that this website is a fraud. I urge persons do not, under any circumstances send money or information to anyone online. No Government Minister will ever contact you on social media, asking you for money. And this site, which features quotes and has given me a promotion to Prime Minister of Bermuda, they ask people to invest in a bitcoin or some other type thing.
Here’s the truth. If you click on the site, and if you enter your credit card details to make an investment in something that is not being promoted by us, you will likely never see that money again. The Bermuda Police Service has already issued a statement on this particular scam. I did check Facebook earlier today and see that it’s been shared a number of times, it is false, and if you enter your money on that website or enter your credit card information, it is likely that information will be stolen and you will not see your money again.
As we are now fully in Phase 4, this is the last of the twice weekly government press conferences to update the country on COVID-19. We will shift to once a week for press conferences starting next week. And the next time that will be with you in your living rooms will be next week Thursday.
Additionally, the House of Assembly will meet tomorrow to consider a number of pieces of legislation, some which were mentioned by the Minister of Finance. Please tune in to parliament.bm, you can listen on 105.1, or you can also hear the goings on of the House of Assembly on Bernews.com.
As we conclude today’s media briefing, I would like to extend the prayers and best wishes of Bermuda to Private Ndavyah or Davy Williams and his family. Private Williams is recovering with our prayers, our support and our sincere gratitude for his service.
And before I close I want to thank the ministers who have been with me at all of these press conferences.
It has been an incredible amount of work, so Minister Wilson, I pay special tribute to you and to Minister of National Security Minister Wayne Caines, who, when I said that we were moving to once a week, press conferences, started singing choral music because it has been an incredible toll. But this has been a difficult experience for all of us, but it has been a pleasure making sure that we keep everyone informed. As we move to Phase 4 we are going to adjust to our new normal, but we’re going to make sure that we keep you informed fully on a weekly basis.
Thank you. Happy to take any questions.