Editor’s note: Mark S. Baldyga is the chairman and CEO of the Baldyga Group, which he founded in 1990. The group includes the SandCastle dinner theater, The Beach Restaurant & Bar, Globe nightclub, Big Sunset dinner cruise, Tao Tao Tasi dinner theater, and Ride the Ducks amphibious tours. He is a former chairman of the Guam Visitors Bureau and author of Tourism 2020, Guam’s strategic tourism plan and is spearheading Tourism 2025.
Q: Work is underway on a plan to Reopen Guam. How should the Guam plan differ from the White House Guidelines for Opening Up America?
A: The goals should be the same: restart the economy, protect the vulnerable, mitigate risk of resurgence and prevent critical resources from being overwhelmed. But the approaches can be very different. The White House guidelines need to work for 300 million people across 66 different states and territories. We are a small island with unique characteristics and a supportive community. We can leverage those strengths.
Q: Give us an example of how we would leverage our small size.
A: The White House guidelines call for three large phases and random testing, because they need to manage tens of millions of people at a time. But it would be safer to roll things out more gradually across a dozen small steps with one element added each week, while closely monitoring actual utilization of medical resources, ready to pause at any time. Guam is small enough that we can do this. For example, we can reopen GovGuam in week one and businesses in week two, both with strict requirements such as masks for staff, minimum physical distances, and 50% occupancy for restaurants. Every week or two thereafter we can ease into opening camps and schools, the airport and tourism, and eventually gradually relaxing restrictions.
Q: Any other examples?
A: Some have said with a mass population like the U.S. you need to rely on sampling and testing. But testing is imperfect. You can test negative today and positive tomorrow. And as you increase testing, you will naturally see more cases and the ratios and percentages shift. Stanford University just published research that COVID-19 cases could be 50 times higher than reported. With clearly unknown asymptomatic spread, we must be skeptical of models and forecasts and avoid focusing solely on test results.
The good news is that Guam is small enough that we can easily monitor ACTUAL critical resources rather than relying on formulas. For example, we can monitor and publish each day the number of actual available hospital and ICU beds versus predetermined minimums for pausing reopening. And this approach doesn’t need to be only reactionary. We can report and actively monitor respiratory outpatient visits each day, not only at the hospitals but also at all clinics and doctor’s offices on-island. This would be impossible to do in the states. White House medical advisor Dr. Deborah Brix shows this to be a leading indicator that anticipates and predates positive COVID cases by two weeks. It’s an earlier indicator and arguably more definitive than sampling. This combination of many small steps with active daily resource monitoring will work well as long as we are prepared to pause the rollout schedule if needed and as long as we have contingency resources — which the governor has done a great job of arranging.
Q: What about tourism? When and how do you see that starting back up?
A: We should focus only on Japan, Korea and Taiwan initially in order to safely ease into things. Japanese and Koreans face 14-day quarantines on their return home as of now, so tourism can’t really start until those are lifted, which I expect to be around June. That’s fine, because it gives us time to get ready and start easing into a return to business and limited socialization and interaction. Guam is close, safe and familiar (which we will market) so we should pick up at least a bit of business right away compared to other destinations but I expect we will see only 20% to 50% of normal arrivals for several months, growing slowly and only returning to normal in 2021.
Q: What needs to happen in order to restart tourism?
A: We must set a date before anything can even begin to happen. I realize it seems difficult to commit to a date at this tenuous stage, but we must set a date even if it’s far in advance such as mid-June or July 1.
Airlines need to position aircraft. Travel agents need to setup packages and start taking bookings. Only 25% of APAC consumers book within 30 days or less. From the time we set a date, it will take 45 to 60 days to even begin flights and then another two months to reach even a modest level of arrivals. If we wait until late May to announce a date, we won’t have any real volume of customers until September. Clearly there is a risk that we might have to push the date back if there’s a virus surge, but everyone on all sides will completely understand if that happens. Having a date that changes is better than having no date and no customers. Nothing can start without setting a clear date upon which we will stop the quarantine for arrivals from Japan, Korea and Taiwan.
Q: What restrictions should we have once we restart?
A: We need to keep things as simple as possible. Airlines and travel agents deal with hundreds of destinations. We should not require forms that are “Guam only” or that need DPHHS approval. We should simply mirror whatever rules are required to travel to the U.S. We need to keep it simple for airlines, travel agents and customers who are trying to book a trip and don’t speak English. Our approach must also deal with the reality of removing any expectation of pre-departure COVID testing. While such testing would be ideal, negative COVID certification is not even available in Japan and it’s difficult and cost prohibitive in Korea. Until we have no such restrictions, we will not have sufficient tourists for the hotels and the industry to survive and further months of delays would be catastrophic. We should mirror U.S. requirements —including a prohibition on China, Europe and Iran and keep it simple.
On the other hand, we absolutely need thermal scanning at the airport and also preferably at hotel entrances. Those actions inspire comfort and confidence from our guests. We should also be very restrictive about allowing arrivals from high-risk locations such as the Philippines except with strict quarantine, possibly even until there is a vaccine. There is simply too big a risk to not do so.
Q: Are you working with the governor’s task force?
A: Yes, I am a part of that group, although I should be clear that my opinions in this interview are my own. It’s a great group of people and all decisions are of course for the governor alone to make. We are there to simply offer advice.
Q: What are some of the precautions you envision? How do we develop those?
A: We were able to find a detailed set of health, sanitation and physical distancing standards that were prepared in consultation with CDC, Georgetown and Johns Hopkins. We are adapting those into requirements and recommendations that are suited for Guam. Examples include specifics on temperature checks, physical distancing, hand sanitizer, signage, masks and gloves, food handling, food preparation, cleaning and sanitation protocols, shared equipment, cash handling, cross contamination, occupancy limitations, screening, reporting and employee education.
Q: What else can be done to reopen safely?
A: The most important thing we can do is to isolate and support the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions. Many people don’t realize that the percent of people who have died without having a pre-existing condition (heart, respiratory, cancer, hypertension, or diabetes) is below 1%. And the elderly are 40 times to 70 times more likely to die than those under 40. The risk starts increasing around 65 years old. We can reopen safely if we can provide measures to protect those at risk, such as having them shelter in place or by providing telework options, dedicated shopping hours, separate queues and seating, and free grocery and delivery services using volunteers.
Q: Is it possible to leave health issues and COVID-19 aside in an economic recovery plan?
A: No. You cannot ignore or diminish the health issues. The health and safety of our people is the most important consideration. The governor has worked hard at making this her top priority. We now need to strike a balance between the health concerns from the virus and the social and economic wellbeing of the people, which includes our ability to fund essential and social services and our people’s ability to provide housing and food for their families; these are all interconnected.
Q: What will the new profile look like for your businesses? Your operations are quite diverse — will you make changes?
A: We will need to make significant changes. Our core businesses are high volume dinner theaters, dinner cruise, restaurants, bars and amphibious sightseeing vehicles. We can’t open any of the tours until we reach a minimum level of around probably 50% of normal arrivals. We will be among the hardest hit. Our current business model has high fixed costs and revenue will be down by probably 50% for an extended period. We need to decrease capacity, significantly reduce overhead, and bear the increased costs of providing uncompromising guest safety and sanitation. We are working through those plans now and I’m fairly optimistic. Adaptability is a way of life on Guam and our team is terrific; I am confident they will rise to the challenge. As they say, “in the midst of crisis is opportunity,” so we’ll view it that way and see if we can’t come out of this stronger than ever.
Q: Have you taken any operational or general wisdom away from this whole experience so far?
A: My family and our entire business team (our extended Baldyga Group family) have been incredibly supportive of the company and of one another during this difficult time. It has made me realize that we should stop to appreciate what we have when things are good … and appreciate them even more when times are tough. mbj