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Phase one: proceeding with caution

Surreal scene: Hamilton’s rather quiet Front Street during the lockdown. The Government has just announced a gradual lifting of the shelter-at-home rules (File photograph by Akil Simmons)

The Bermuda Government seems to have struck the right balance as it announced on Wednesday that shelter-at-home rules will be lifted on Saturday — but most restrictions on everyday life will continue. Retail businesses and restaurants will be able to offer kerbside and delivery services, some government operations will be restored, including limited public transport, and people will be able to get outdoors, exercise and take part in open-air sporting activities where it is possible to socially distance.Of course, this is a far cry from normal life, but it will enable people to at least blow off some steam and will allow a few people to return to work. All of this, of course, carries a major caveat: if the number of coronavirus cases spikes, the restrictions will resume. And the first of four phases of easing will only begin to get the economy going. In the days before the lockdown, Hamilton got less and less busy, as Bermuda’s economic engine geared down from fourth to first gear and then to more or less a dead stop. From tomorrow, it will be the equivalent of restarting the engine and engaging first gear. As welcome as it will be for the people who are returning to work, there is a long way to go.The Government outlined a further three phases of reopening. In phase two, retailers will be able to allow in customers and limited personal services such as haircuts will be permitted, although it is not entirely clear how that will happen while social-distancing is observed. Phase three will see schools reopen, full government opening and an end to mandated working from home. Reopening the airport and scheduled air service are placed in the fourth phase, along with dine-in restaurants and full personal services. There is room to quibble with some of the details here; it has been suggested, correctly, that the airport reopening should be kept separate from any phases, as it is dependent on what happens elsewhere and because David Burt, the Premier, admitted that details on whether or how arriving passengers should be tested and quarantined have yet to be worked out.Similarly, Bermuda could take a leaf out of New Zealand’s book and allow some limited working in offices, provided companies can show that they have met social-distancing and Covid-19 criteria. In particular, this would allow people in low-risk categories to return to offices.Of course, the most important news is that testing is now ramped up and very few positive cases have been recorded. That is the primary reason why the Government feels safe to start relaxing the shelter-at-home regulations, but also why it is right to take great care not to ease restrictions too quickly. The Premier, rightly, would not be drawn on when phases two through four would be implemented. And the Government must continue to be flexible as the world learns more about the disease. So proceeding with caution is the right thing to do now. This will be frustrating for many, especially those who are out of work and facing mounting bills — and there are thousands of people in this situation. But the alternative is worse; by opening too quickly, Bermuda runs the risk of sparking a new wave of infection, which would only lead to another lockdown and a longer wait to return to the “new normal”. That’s why it is also critical that people follow the restrictions that are still in place; doing so will prevent spikes and wider infection rates. Only by continuing social-distancing will Bermuda keep the curve flattened and only then will the public feel safe to resume normal life — if Bermuda lifted all restrictions now, people would simply refuse to go to work or take part in “normal activities”. In the meantime, Bermuda needs to seriously source and procure the tests, personal protective equipment and technology that mean the island can deal with this crisis and will be ready to tackle the next one — because there will be a next one. It is simply a matter of time.As the Government said, it will take a long time for Bermuda to return to pre-coronavirus normality. But many Asian countries, having learnt from Sars and H1N1, have the technology for remote testing of people’s temperatures and the like, which must be now a part of normal life, just as security checks became part of normal life after 9/11.