In This Distant American Outpost, Pandemic Restoration Is a Faraway Dream

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TAMUNING, Guam – Just steps from the prismatic seas off the west coast of Guam, a water sports shop was closed on a weekend morning, its shelf full of neon kayaks and a fleet of jet skis collecting leaves.

On a street by the sea, in the tourist district of Tumon, the Hyatt Regency’s souvenir shop displayed its beach fleets and fidgety moths in complete darkness. Nearby, a mall adorned with miniaturized street lamps had only one guest: a stray dog ​​basking in the tropical heat. Worn posters on the walls advertised a TV series that premiered last year.

“The hustle and bustle here has just evaporated,” said Madelaine Cosico, director of sales and marketing at the Hyatt.

While much of the United States has reverted to pre-coronavirus life, the tiny American territory of Guam in the western Pacific is stuck in time. A year and a half into the pandemic, the island’s tourism-dependent economy remains paralyzed, and officials say a full recovery is likely years away.

The South Korean and Japanese visitors who once crowded Guam for its year-round sun and luxury boutiques are long gone, and now that their home countries are hit by their worst Covid outbreaks, they won’t be returning anytime soon. The island’s economy shrank by up to 18.9 percent in 2020 and, according to estimates by economists at the University of Guam, would have shrunk by up to 49 percent without pandemic aid from the federal government.

Recovery, the island leaders believe, begins with vaccination. Its 170,000 residents met the government’s target of 80 percent vaccination rates in adults by July, the same month that quarantine regulations for foreign tourists were lifted. It has also complied with mask requirements, and compliance is almost universal. Most businesses ask customers to record their contact information, and even small hotel elevators have markings on the floor to provide social distancing.

The government has also poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into a program designed to attract tourists with the promise of not only vacations but vaccinations as well. The program called Air V&V gives visitors a choice of one of the CDC-approved vaccines for $ 100 or less per dose.

By the end of August, according to the Guam Visitors Bureau, at least 2,100 vaccination tourists will have arrived in chartered planes, in addition to a relatively small number of others on regular flights. But that’s no consolation on an island that had 1.7 million arrivals in the year before the pandemic began.

“It’s not even a drop in the ocean,” says Bob Odell, the owner of a water sports store called Guam Ocean Adventures. “I don’t think anyone is fine here.”

The island had hoped to attract people from Japan and South Korea, where vaccination campaigns have lagged, but rare flights and strict quarantine requirements have kept people out.

“That’s an obstacle to really growing,” said Gerry Perez, vice president of the visitors’ office. “We have a program of organizers trying to soil the seats of planes.”

All those who arrived on charter flights were from Taiwan, where vaccines were difficult to come by and travel agents quickly took advantage of the offer.

Updated

Aug 29, 2021, 10:10 p.m. ET

A Taiwanese visitor, Yulin Lin, recently hid under a bright orange pavilion from the sun and watched her teenage daughters take selfies before stepping into a translucent lagoon. Strapped in diving gear, they made their way to see marine life that have overtaken underwater craters named after bombs from World War II.

Ms. Lin took her family to Guam to get the Pfizer vaccine before the school year started and spent thousands on a travel package that included a stay at the all-inclusive Pacific Islands Club. When she returns home, she will have to spend at least another $ 2,000 on government-mandated hotel quarantine.

“I think it’s good for them to be out again. They’re not just locked up in the town house, ”Ms. Lin said of her daughters. “I expected a lot of things to be closed so we have to come back here.”

Few companies across the island said they saw the small increase in tourists. Instead, many rely on constant supplies from U.S. soldiers arriving for short-term deployments. Others said it was just too expensive to reopen for such a small clientele.

Understand US vaccination and mask requirements

    • Vaccination rules. On August 23, the Food and Drug Administration fully approved Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for people aged 16 and over, paving the way for increased mandates in both the public and private sectors. Private companies are increasingly demanding vaccines for employees. Such mandates are legally permissible and have been confirmed in legal challenges.
    • Mask rules. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July recommended that all Americans, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in public places indoors in areas with outbreaks, reversing the guidelines offered in May. See where the CDC guidelines would apply and where states have implemented their own mask guidelines. The battle over masks is controversial in some states, with some local leaders defying state bans.
    • College and Universities. More than 400 colleges and universities require a vaccination against Covid-19. Almost all of them are in states that voted for President Biden.
    • schools. Both California and New York City have introduced vaccine mandates for educational staff. A survey published in August found that many American parents of school-age children are opposed to mandatory vaccines for students but are more supportive of masking requirements for students, teachers, and staff who do not have a vaccination.
    • Hospitals and medical centers. Many hospitals and large health systems require their employees to receive a Covid-19 vaccine, due to rising case numbers due to the Delta variant and persistently low vaccination rates in their communities, even within their workforce.
    • New York City. Proof of vaccination is required by workers and customers for indoor dining, gyms, performances, and other indoor situations, though enforcement doesn’t begin until September 13th. Teachers and other educational workers in the city’s vast school system are required to have at least one vaccine dose by September 27, without the option of weekly testing. City hospital staff must also be vaccinated or have weekly tests. Similar rules apply to employees in New York State.
    • At the federal level. The Pentagon announced that it would make coronavirus vaccinations compulsory for the country’s 1.3 million active soldiers “by mid-September at the latest. President Biden announced that all civil federal employees would need to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or undergo regular tests, social distancing, mask requirements and travel restrictions.

At the Hyatt Regency, where the huge lobby bistro has only a few small tables and the nightclub has been chained for months, around 100 full-time and part-time workers were laid off during the pandemic.

Several gas stations have cut their operating hours, and some car rental companies have either sold their inventory or started leasing vehicles to local residents at a reduced price. Independent taxi drivers have chosen to find another job and the local rideshare app Stroll Guam often notifies users that there are no drivers left.

About 60 percent of the island’s revenue came from tourism as of 2019, and Guam has lost $ 200,000 an hour in revenue from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan since the pandemic began, said Mr Perez, the tourism official.

“We think we will recover, but we will not recover very quickly. Not for at least maybe two or maybe three years, ”he said. “If the gods are with us, we should be able to attract 80,000 visitors for the next fiscal year.” That would be less than 5 percent of the usual annual influx from Guam.

Vaccination – both for the local population and for any visitors who need it – is a first step.

Kai Akimoto was standing in the basement of the Pacific Islands Club one day, leading a group of Taiwanese tourists to a row of black tables where nurses were waiting to give them their syringes. He’s been working six or seven days a week for months now, he said, coordinating vaccination programs for the American Medical Center, a local clinic.

“We’re a community that isn’t that concerned about getting the vaccine. We don’t have that many people here with concerns, ”Akimoto said. “Your concerns are that Guam is still closed. And if that’s the ticket to get back to work and get the economy going, then they want people to get the chance. “

Down the street, the once popular Guam Reef Hotel looked after a small group of guests whose lobby and infinity pool were nearly empty on a weekend.

Jason LaMattery, the hotel’s customer service coordinator, said the number of guests dropped about 98 percent between early 2020 and early 2021. In addition to military visitors, the hotel had a small number of vaccination tourists.

“Things are starting to look up,” he said. “We are slowly recovering from a terrible situation. But are we going to get 100, 200 people out of it? No I do not think so.”