Sandals Resorts International was prominent in travel news this week following a COVID-19 outbreak in Grenada that local press reports linked to the company’s Sandals Grenada property. Company officials have challenged the reports, the first to connect any of the all-inclusive resort giant’s properties, which have resumed operations in nine countries since the pandemic, with a coronavirus outbreak.
We spoke with Adam Stewart, the Deputy Chairman of the family-run company, among the Caribbean’s largest employers and a crucial hospitality operator across the tourism-reliant region, to discuss how Sandals is handling COVID-19 risks in general and the Grenada reports.
TP: How did Sandals officials become aware of the COVID-19 cases linked to resort guests and staff?
AS: “This scenario started with our general manager, Peter Fraser, executing on our Sandals Platinum Protocols of Cleanliness, created specifically to reduce the risks associated with COVID-19. Peter requested that random sample testing take place at our resort prior to any direct concern being identified as a proactive measure to ensure we are monitoring for any potential risks.
“Peter is a top-class hotelier. So when the Ministry of Health gave us three unannounced health inspections since we re-opened, the resort passed all three with flying colors. [Subsequently] Peter called several times to request random testing be conducted and finally this began last week. This is an important point, as it was the proactivity of our Sandals protocols and local management that helped to identify cases early. The tests found some positive results, though all were asymptomatic, and after secondary testing some have even come back negative.”
TP: What happened next?
AS: “At that point, as the investigation and contact tracing was just starting to take place, some officials and local media began claiming this cluster’s source was Sandals. This is not based on any facts or public health study and instead was speculation. As of today, the source is not yet known and we are fully supporting the contact tracing and fact-finding efforts, which are ongoing, to try to identify a source as well as any key learnings available from this situation.
“I’m not trying to put the blame back on the government, but I do think there have been a number of inaccuracies that do not inform the public and travelers in a respectful and transparent manner. Our company has truly led the way in health and safety protocols [and] a lot have even been copied over the course of time by the rest of the industry, and they have kept travelers safe.
“Our training is the gold standard and I think it’s indisputable that [Sandals’] Platinum Protocols have been the benchmark. It’s a 78-page document with every element, and the protocol in each country that we operate in is customized to the national protocols. So the Pure Grenada protocol is embedded as a piece of the Sandals Grenada protocol but we go way beyond that.”
TP: Are the reported case numbers accurate?
AS: “The numbers have moved all over the place. Some of the people they’ve tested have been re-tested and now say they’re negative. The unfortunate scenario here is that testing is used as proactively and even when it is, like in this case, it is not perfect.”
TP: What were some of those inaccuracies?
AS: “One that has been mentioned in the press is that somehow Sandals guests weren’t tested. In every English-speaking country in the Caribbean, you have to apply online, you have to show proof of a negative result of a PCR test, it’s uploaded into an app and then approved by border control. That has to be done prior to you getting on an airplane. So, every single customer that came to Sandals Grenada and every other Sandals in the region gets permission through border control and the Ministry of Health because of this negative test result. What the world has learned this year is that unfortunately this virus is easily spread and testing is not perfect, which is why we have asked for random testing beyond the current standard in order to ensure we are doing everything possible to protect guests and our team members.”
TP: Where do things stand now?
AS: “This is an ongoing investigation. We are now in deeper dialogue with the government and we offered to show them our records, which they had not yet requested. We certainly have asked them for their records and are insisting that a full assessment be conducted in order to understand this cluster of cases and learn from it. Again, any claims repeated in local media about sources and conclusions are completely inaccurate and represent hearsay at a time when travelers and the people of Grenada deserve facts.
“We also did not evacuate any guests, as some media claimed, and we continued to operate the resort safely. Out of an abundance of caution we ourselves, which is a feature of our Platinum Protocols, and with the interests of our staff and our guests in mind, have made the decision to not accept new arrivals at the hotel until this matter settles.”
TP: When will you again begin accepting new arrivals?
AS: “We’ve contacted our customers and told them that as of today we have set a re-opening date of February 3 for the hotel. That has been chosen for two reasons. It’s a holiday season which is unfortunate, and Sandals is absorbing 100 percent of the cost for accommodating our impacted guests at any of our other resorts in the region that they choose.
“Secondly, because the government is starting to shift and is unsure of how they will go forward with their own protocols and tourist entry requirements, we must wait for them to finalize a plan so we can have professional conversation about how that’s going to affect our customers, our operation and our staff. We want to give ourselves that time to be sure and get it right. What we have learned this year is that a lack of clarity as to traveler rules, restrictions and protocols – or constantly changing guidelines – make it impossible for travelers to feel confident in visiting a destination.”
TP: Sandals is also operating resorts in Antigua, Barbados, Saint Lucia and The Bahamas, with no reported COVID-19 outbreaks since travel resumed to those destinations. Is Grenada an isolated incident?
AS: “We have been safely operating since June. Jamaica opened in the middle of June [and] has had hundreds of thousands of visitors coming back and safely moving. It feels great.
“In the world of travel you do end up with positive cases here and there. Jamaica has moved a lot more people than Grenada, I’m not talking about Sandals, I’m talking at large the destination, and there’s never been a single hospitalized visitor [or] a single case of an incoming visitor spreading the virus through the official channels. Nothing is infallible but it shows us that our Sandals protocols truly work.
“We have 17 resorts open; we’ve been open as a region now for seven months. We have a flawless track record [and] the numbers are in our favor as to how strongly these protocols work.”