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The Caribbean Dilemma



Last year, more than 31 million people visited the Caribbean, more than half of them from the United States. I was one of them. Together, we contributed $59 billion to the region’s 2019 gross domestic product — accounting for a whopping 50 to 90 percent of the G.D.P. for most of the countries, according to the International Monetary Fund.

I admit that in moments of pandemic weariness I have been one of those people eyeing cheap tickets to the Caribbean, wondering when I might feel ready to jump on a flight.

Now, though, our business comes with a mortal threat — that for the sake of a vacation we will bring the coronavirus to islands that are ill prepared to handle a major outbreak. But staying home could be equally ruinous. The Covid-19 lockdown — and the severity of the epidemic in the United States — has been a disaster beyond any hurricane for the Caribbean economy. The pandemic has closed airports and cruise ship docks, shut down restaurants and dive shops and deprived the Caribbean of tens of billions of dollars.

“To not have visitors arriving for any period of time, but particularly for an extended period of time, has brought immense hardship to a number of people throughout the Caribbean,” said Hugh Riley, the former head of the Caribbean Tourism Office, and a partner with Portfolio Marketing Group, which represents some islands. “Caribbean countries face an important dilemma: Try to hermetically seal their borders from visitors until there’s an effective vaccine, or tackle the risks of restarting tourism now. It is the classic risk/reward decision,” he said.

As of August 3, 22 islands in the region have reopened to tourism, with 14 allowing visitors from the United States — with negative Covid-19 tests and, usually, periods of quarantine. It has not always gone smoothly: The Bahamas allowed Americans to visit beginning in July, slammed the door shut as coronavirus cases surged in that nation, reopened and then shut down again, indicative of the efforts to manage a moving crisis. Puerto Rico opened to Americans from the mainland on July 15, but pushed that date back to August 15 after a weekend of viral videos showing incoming visitors ignoring mask and social distancing rules. On the other end of the spectrum, Barbados is offering a 12-month visa to any American interested in moving a work-from-home office to the island.

Tourists looking to escape to a coronavirus-free tropical island have a responsibility to weigh the risks and take precautions.

So does the airline industry, says Allen Chastanet, the prime minister of St. Lucia and a former airline executive nominated by CARICOM, the 20-nation Caribbean consortium, and the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States to develop recommendations for reopening the region. Mr. Chastanet has been urging the airlines to push for the development and implementation of rapid preboarding airport testing for all passengers.

“You have to have testing sites, the way you have a Dunkin’ Donuts kiosk in every airport,” he said. “The airlines in many ways acted like they had ostrich syndrome, and said it is somebody else’s problem, but ultimately it is their problem. They have to use their advocacy strength to make it happen.”

Tourism has always been a two-edged sword for the region. It brought money for some, but also brought corruption, environmental degradation and unchecked development. No tourist who steps outside an “inclusive” resort can fail to notice the incredible disparity of wealth on the islands: palatial walled estates are often a stone’s throw from cement block shacks. Crime is such a problem on some Caribbean islands that websites are devoted to statistics to help worried travelers shop for the safest destinations. (I can attest to this problem, having been burglarized in Tobago and Vieques.) The BBC once called Jamaica “the murder capital of the world,” to howls of outrage from the Jamaicans.

As Caribbean tourism exploded and got cheaper, local tour operators raked in money, but faced unexpected problems. Tropical infrastructure, local police and medical systems were overwhelmed on some islands even before the virus. One island friend, a divemaster at a major site, who asked that his name not be used for fear of losing his job, told me he has seen increasingly obese, relatively unhealthy American tourists who feel entitled to be squished into neoprene suits and taken to the depths as cruise lines and cheap tours market scuba diving — once reserved for scientists, Navy SEALs and the ultrawealthy and sporty — to all.

The Caribbean is the biggest source of business for the global cruise industry, which is notoriously callous about the environment. Cruise lines were the first global heralds of the coronavirus disaster and will likely be the last travel industry to come back once the virus is under control.

The cruise industry always had the upper hand on the islands. When a cruise ship docks and thousands of people are disgorged, the impression of prosperity is illusory. Most of the islands pay a per head fee to the cruise lines for each passenger who disembarks, the cruise ships are notoriously bad for reefs, and they have a stranglehold on the discretionary dollars their passengers are spending.

“Everything that can be sold on board is already sold, and anyplace on the island that could benefit has already made arrangements with the cruise company,” said Noel Mignott, a former deputy director of tourism for Jamaica and a founding partner of Portfolio Marketing Group. “If one good thing could come of Covid, I would be encouraged to see governments take this opportunity to renegotiate the relationship with the cruise lines. And if I was a cruise line, I would wave that green flag and try to be as good as I can to the environment — if only to say we are not dumping our garbage in the ocean two miles off Ocho Rios.”

The Dutch island of Bonaire is one of the ports of call for behemoth and often super-discounted cruise ships plying the Caribbean. In the last few years, two building-size ships have daily disgorged up to 4,000 passengers at a time during the cruising season. The ships have sometimes sparked food shortages by taking up dock space needed for cargo.

Now, in the pandemic lull, tour providers, officials and some citizens have been quietly discussing what to do about the ships when they return. Facebook groups like Bonaire Future Forum: Opportunity From Crisis are debating whether the island should limit access to specific ships that cost more and are therefore more selective in their choice of passenger.

The island has one of the most pristine reefs in the Caribbean, and animal behavior has changed since the number of daily human divers dropped from thousands to the single digits. Local divers are noticing animals come closer, and the elusive seahorse has been a common sight these last months.

The pandemic has already changed life by necessity. The Caribbean has a “ridiculously high” food import bill because of an assumption that tourists don’t want to eat local food, Mr. Riley said. The pandemic may change that. “We have been laboring under the misconception that tourists want something other than what we have. We think people want hamburgers and hot dogs. Now that we are consuming what we have, I think this will lead to an increased variety in what we produce locally,” he said.

Sven Olof Lindblad, the chief executive of Lindblad Expeditions, which offers high-end, small-ship, environmentally conscious cruises around the world, sees the pandemic as a moment in which destinations can seize control of the downside of overtourism and demand changes. “This clearly is a time to rethink — but it won’t be led by businesses who are, by and large, too fat and happy with the way it is. Create working groups to totally rethink the relationship of tourism focused on value — and not just financial value.”

Stepping out of an aluminum tube in the dead of winter and into a blanket of tropical humidity is, in my view, one of life’s singular pleasures. And I’ve endured many a discount middle seat to get some “last-minute” sun and sand in the Caribbean.

But these jaunts have sometimes come with a measure of self-loathing. Quaffing wintertime margaritas poolside at an inclusive Jamaican resort next to my fellow pasty North Americans while our sunburned kids went sugar-mad refilling plastic cups at a Willy Wonka-style eternal soda fountain is not a look I’m proud of.

More, I can never fully repress the awareness that these trips are not ecologically friendly. Even before flight-shaming, the rampant construction of resorts, the ribbons of new roads and the abomination of air conditioning all struck me as a blight on the natural beauty of the islands.

Everyone I talked to about a post-Covid Caribbean mentioned one thing: a hope that the pandemic might result in a different kind of tourist: a traveler, not necessarily richer in money, but more conscious, more of an explorer and less of a sybarite. It is a hope shared by many overtouristed spots around the globe, from Venice to the beaches of southern Thailand. For the Caribbean, a long history of being seen as a playground for visitors from the mainland United States might make things harder.

The tourist industry itself trained Americans to think of the Caribbean as “sun, sand and sea,” and to think of the diverse islands as interchangeable, Mr. Mignott said. Other than the sea they share, the islands are different, each with a unique geological and human history. The older islands to the west, including Cuba, are formed of limestone and billions of shells and skeletons of ancient marine life, while the black cliffs and crags of the younger islands along the eastern edge — where the Caribbean and the Atlantic tectonic plates grind against each other — are relics of violent prehistoric volcanic events.

In my years exploring the Caribbean, I’ve visited Guadeloupe, Bonaire, St. John, Vieques, Jamaica and Tobago, and met people who have in common that they were born with the sound of the sea in their ears, but otherwise possess unique traditions, history, language and culture, that reward visitors with a little curiosity.

The Caribbean tourism industry could take this opportunity to differentiate the islands, and maybe even put responsibility on travelers to go beyond the resort walls or cruise ship all-inclusives and explore local food and culture.

Can it happen? As airlines and cruise ships reduce capacity, and the tourist industry consolidates, the islands need to act deliberately, said Mr. Riley. “Are we going to leave it to happenstance or are we going to plan for more socially responsible tourism and put policies in place that redress and undo damage to the environment?” he asked.

The premier of the island of Nevis, Mark Brantley, said the pandemic has taught the Caribbean that overreliance on tourism is not the best model and that Covid-19 could mark the end of the era of cheap tourism and mega cruises. “Jurisdictions are going to pivot to more tourism pitched at the luxury market, with smaller numbers of people and arguably a better yield,” he said. Additionally, he predicted that local industries, especially agriculture and agri-processing, will become more important sectors of the Caribbean economies. “Countries will be trying to diversify, where tourism continues to be important, but not the only game in town anymore.”

Mr. Chastanet said that when the pandemic struck, St. Lucia was already midway into a national program to promote what he called “village tourism,” sprucing up hamlets with new infrastructure and training and providing seed money for resort workers and hotel chefs to open up their own small-scale, boutique operations. “The things we were doing just got reinforced by Covid,” he said.

“We really hope if one good thing happens from the pandemic, it will be that travel is more thoughtful, and travelers are more conscious about the environment,” said Mr. Mignott, the former deputy tourism director for Jamaica. “We don’t think people are just going to go back like Covid never happened. We really think it will be different.”

I will regret the end of cheap, mass Caribbean tourism, if it comes, but I understood its downside long before the coronavirus. I have also been another kind of island traveler — a temporary resident. I spent most of my seventh month of one pregnancy floating like a turtle in the sea outside an old-time resort called Arnos Vale in Tobago, traditionally known as a destination for birders. We couldn’t afford to lodge there, but we swam on the beach and spent time under the slow flapping porch fan where a talking parrot held court.

A year later, we moved our family into a Tobago rental for six weeks. We lived simply on peanut butter sandwiches, the daily fish catch and Betty Crocker box cakes. Every day I rode my bike past a ruined pink plantation and through a hilltop hamlet impossibly named “Whim.”

In Whim, Tobagoans lived in simple wood shacks perched on cliffs overlooking crashing surf, poor in money, but the owners of stupendous, million-dollar views.

When we returned to the island a few years later we found newly paved roads, traffic jams, and a new mood — the hum and honk of progress drowning out the hummingbirds and the cackle of the national bird, the cocrico, at dawn. I know Whim is still on the map, but I wonder who owns those little shacks.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home



On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”



Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.


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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment



The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.


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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls



With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

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