The experience of being in Belize during this crisis…..

So much has changed since my last post. Not just in Belize of course but all over the world. Things have been changing daily over the last approximately two weeks here.Belize was far behind every other country in the Western hemisphere when it came to the virus. Because of the very low population density here, and the relatively small number of tourists compared to every other country around us, we were not hit as hard and as quickly as everyone else. The largest city, Belize City, has 50,000 residents. The most popular towns people visit, including Placencia and San Pedro in Ambergris Caye, have about 5,500 people on the whole peninsula in Placencia, and about 18,000 residents on the island (plus tourists). This makes for a very unique experience compared to places with millions.

We only had our first confirmed case on the island of Ambergris Caye about a week ago. Before that, we had ongoing more restrictive rules like everyone in the world. Before the confirmed case, on the island, we were down to 25 people gatherings. We had just shut down international travel, and almost all tourists had gone home. Side note, it was a little surprising to me, but there were many, many visitors who chose to ride it out in Belize, even up until today. The reason we think people chose to stay was because of the relative lack of restrictions, and the relative feeling of normalcy we had for so long here, compared to the rest of the world and what we were hearing. There have been some last minute repatriation flights and a small number have taken advantage of these.

It almost felt like an unspoken country wide anxiety, waiting for the first confirmed case. I almost felt like the country breathed a sigh of relief when it was finally announced. I say this because up until the point there was a confirmed case, we were just not sure what we should do to stay safe and there weren’t exact rules. The positive case created an urgency and a structure to what we needed to do. We all knew it was a matter of time, it just seems from common knowledge that there would be few places in the entire world that would be completely spared, especially those accepting international travelers. When it was announced, things immediately changed here on the island.

The entire island was immediately put on a 72-hour quarantine. All non-essential businesses were pretty much closed, with the exception of a few delivery places outside of grocery and pharmacies. We are still allowed to go to the grocery stores in the morning from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m., here on the island. In the rest of the country, they are down to 10 person gatherings, and on a voluntary quarantine. People are being asked to stay home throughout the country unless it is essential to leave the home. The levels of restrictions are much different compared to the island, though.

Two days ago, the government announced that we would have to do up to a 30-day quarantine on the island. It was found that the first positive case, after the mapping process was done, had led to one other positive case. They are currently mapping the second person to see how far it may have reached. Although the Prime Minister said that it may not be a full 30 days, the island appears to be expecting that it will probably be that long.

Everyone is allowed to go shopping in the morning, but you are not allowed to do much of anything else. All non-essential businesses have to remain closed, including restaurants, and even deliveries are pretty limited. People can get grocery delivery. Pharmacies are staying open most of the day. Belize has brought in outside help from places like Cuba, where physicians are coming in to assist. The community here has been nothing short of remarkable. Many of the business owners got together and started a quarantine unit in a private building. Hope Haven here on the island has been nothing short of spectacular; these individuals have been handing food out nonstop to those most in need. Many islanders were able to get off the island the morning the quarantine was announced, because they wanted to go home to their families on the mainland. Many people here were laid off due to the business closures, and did not have the funds or the housing to last for a long quarantine. This led to a lot of controversy in the country, as the rest of the mainland did not want the islanders to infect anyone else. It is certainly understandable, but there are also two sides to that story, and it is impossible to know the exact right things to have done in that situation.

While right now, everyone is mostly concerned with the spread of the virus, with most studies (just based on my own research!!) saying that 97% of people will show symptoms in about 11 days. There are certainly cases that can last longer, but word on the street is that everyone that is home right now, is first and foremost wanting to make sure that they, and their families, are free of the virus. The next worry down the line is that we have unprecedented unemployment due to many business closures. This is not unique to Belize, of course.

Being a business owner myself in this country, this has been an extremely stressful period of time. I have watched as anyone with any means here, has been willing to sacrifice for the greater good; this has been pretty universal. The way the community has come together has been one of the most positive experiences I ever could have expected. Most businesses who can pay employees – even something – to get us through this crisis, are doing so. Everyone with any means is asking what they can give and do for those with less. There has been a remarkable selflessness and desire to make sure no one slips through the cracks.

Like the rest of the world, there is a lot of uncertainty here as well. We all expect that there will be some businesses that simply can’t weather the storm through uncertain months. There will likely be many closures and they will not reopen. There will also be many, many, places that are ready to reopen as soon as they are able. The government is working right now to make sure that any emergency funds are able to be diverted to those most in need. There has not been a concrete plan put out at this point, to identify exactly what the relief will be for individuals or businesses. Already, many of the banks are allowing people to halt paying on loans. Many businesses that have to pay taxes and ongoing bills, with zero income right now, are currently researching what they must pay right now versus what can wait. One of the issues in Belize is that Belize purchases their electricity outside of the country. This is a non-negotiable, so they cannot provide universal relief for everybody. It goes back to the “ask” that anyone with means to do so, continues to pay their bills.

Many, many visitors were looking forward to their time in Belize. It was heartbreaking to have to ask people to put off their visits here. Belize mostly runs on tourism, and this has been and will be devastating to the communities here. We have two hotels here on the island, so I was able to get an up front, albeit awful, seat to the carnage. Universally, the hotels here are mostly family-run places. While every hotel has reserves for cancellations and reschedules, there has never been a time in history where hotels had to face up to months of cancellations and refunds in one short period. The hotel owners on this island all got together to make sure that we were offering as much as we possibly could to the visitors here, in a way that was universal and unified, while also planning to keep the business viable, and being able to give something to staff until reopening was a possibility. Almost all hotel owners offered full credits and rebookings for guests in the normally non-refundable period, which is usually 30 days before arrival. Guests outside of this period were asked to reschedule as opposed to cancel. As a hotel owner, it was/is heartbreaking and scary on every level.

For many other businesses, including small restaurants, and locally run tour guides, this has been nothing short of devastating. Thankfully, due to the tight knit communities, and the vast network of families in this small country, many people were and are able to rely on the minimal comforts offered to keep going at this time.

What has been especially upsetting about this time of year, is that this is the end of the typical high season, which keeps businesses going throughout the low part. It was a rainy and cloudy winter season in this region, and the weather finally let up and has been absolutely perfect. The beaches have also been picture perfect. Belize and many other Caribbean countries went through years of sargassum and survived. It is especially ironic and upsetting that right when the sargassum let up, we were led into an even worse crisis for tourism.

One of the things I have appreciated most in my time in Belize, is the grit and resourcefulness of the Belizean people. This experience thus far has cemented the fact that this is a very special place that takes care of its own, and I personally right now, despite the horrible level of stress across the world, find Belize has a unique position right now. The Belizean culture is extremely non-materialistic, and everyone that lives here for any period of time, generally takes on the same culture. People live very simply here, so much of the level of life change in more developed places, is not as felt here. People are not happy here because of the things they have, they are happy here because it is a gloriously beautiful and simple place to live, with ample free and nature-based activities to enjoy.

I can say from being here, that I feel very lucky to have experienced the crisis in a place like this. The amount of supportive Facebook, WhatsApp, messenger, and other groups that have cropped up out of the blue to provide help, support, and to access those in great need, has been nothing short of miraculous. People have come together and made new friends who had never met up till a couple weeks ago. It has really bonded those who chose to stay here and ride it out. Although I had the chance to go back to the US, this was never really an option for me. Not only was my first priority my businesses and employees, but I was impressed from minute one by the small-town reaction to these huge problems. It somehow made it feel more manageable than imagining being in enormous US cities. I know some have expressed concern about the lack of sophisticated medical care in Belize. We have learned throughout this crisis that there is no predicting the next hour, let alone next week or next month. The business community has come together to raise a great deal of money for medical equipment, and while it may be far short of what is needed, this appears to be true everywhere in the world. None of us know exactly the right place to be, or the safest place with the most resources, because this crisis has exposed many weaknesses all over the world that we never could have known. The way that the country has committed to every behavior to stop the spread. and to get serious about flattening the curve, looks mostly positive right now.

All any of us can do right now, is due our part in our small corners to keep our community safe, keep ourselves safe, and to help those less fortunate. That is my personal plan in the coming weeks. The minute that Belize becomes a place people are able to safely travel again, I will do everything in my power to bring visitors back!!!! (until then, here’s a few pics to lighten the mood…)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Laura Diffendal

Laura and her husband David purchased a half acre on the Caribbean Sea in 2014, in Placencia, Belize. They have built their own version of paradise, and they now operate the only boutique, adults-only microresort, walking distance to everything in the village. Caribbean Beach Cabanas was rated the 2017 Small Hotel of the Year by the Belize Tourism Board, and was featured on HGTV's Beachfront Bargain Hunt. You can visit their site at www.caribbeanbeachcabanas.com. In April of 2018, they opened their second boutique hotel, www.purboutiquecabanas.com, in Ambergris Caye!

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