TREASURE BEACH, St Elizabeth — Jakes Hotel and Jack Sprat Restaurant and Bar have become the first such operations in Jamaica's tourism sector to have all staff vaccinated against COVID-19, c hairman Jason Henzell told the Jamaica Observer yesterday.
Henzell informed the Sunday Observer by telephone that all but five of 125 staff members had taken their vaccination shots by the time the family-owned hotel and adjoining restaurant reopened on September 20 after a three-week break for annual renovation.
He said the remaining five employees, who declined to be vaccinated against the COVID-19, came to an “amicable [separation] arrangement” with the company, using similar calculations to redundancy.
“This is a proud achievement for the Jakes family and we believe it [100 per cent vaccination] is the way forward in dealing with this [health] crisis,” said Henzell, who has led the management of the acclaimed beach-side hotel and restaurant for 26 of its 28 years in existence.
Governments and main stream health-related organisations, including the World Health Organization (WHO), have identified comprehensive antivirus vaccination programmes, as well as protective protocols, as the way to combat the virus which has taken more than 4.5 million lives globally since late 2019. In excess of 1800 people have died in Jamaica from the contagion since March of 2020.
Vaccine shortages in earlier months and current hesitancy on the part of some people in taking the jab have hampered the inoculation campaign in Jamaica and many other countries.
Henzell said that, for months before the first batch of vaccines arrived in Jamaica earlier this year, he had started to sensitise his staff and others at community tourism-oriented Treasure Beach that vaccination would become a “must” in order to keep business afloat.
That became more and more of a “reality” in recent months as the front desk/reception staff at Jakes reported an increasing number of calls from prospective visitors enquiring about levels of vaccination as this was critical to their decision-making.
Henzell said he took the approach of patiently encouraging staff to get medical advice “from our doctors or their doctors”, sometimes in group sessions. Other forms of encouragement included offering to take employees from their homes to the vaccination centres.
He said trust was also gradually built as employees and the wider community observed Jakes's consistent delivery of material assistance to the health sector.
Hundreds of lunches and other material support were provided for health centre workers in nearby communities and as part of a “kind of insurance policy” Jakes acquired quantities of medical oxygen “just in case”.
As it turned out, stored oxygen was used up and had to be replenished as people got sick in Treasure Beach and surrounding communities.
“All of that helped us to build the trust over time,” said Henzell.
Arriving guests have played important roles in affirming for staff members that getting vaccinated made sense.
“People coming into the hotel are saying, 'When you are vaxxed that makes us feel safe.' All of that has helped,” said Henzell.
He claimed the experience at Jakes and the wider Treasure Beach had made him a believer that, as vaccinations soar in tourism source markets such as North America and Europe, those taking holidays will be increasingly going to places where they believe others are also vaccinated.
“That's where we are headed,” said Henzell. It was a consideration he believed the Jamaican Government will have to speedily take on board.
“Increasingly, people who are vaccinated are going to want to be free to move about. They are going to be asking, 'Why do I have to be living with the same, exact restrictions as others who haven't taken the vaccine?'… in the service industry we have to be cognisant of that. Those are the realities we will have to come to terms with,” he said.
Currently, 25 per cent of Jakes's 75 rooms, including villas, are occupied by visitors. Henzell hopes the situation will improve substantially by the start of the new winter season at year end. That, he said, will be largely dependent on how Jamaica manages virus spread and the vaccination programme over the next few months.
Henzell described the last 18 months since COVID-19 “took set” in Jamaica as “a very trying, challenging period when you really had to dig deep in all aspects of the operation… leaning on relationships with employees, guests, creditors, suppliers… millions of dollars owed to you and millions of dollars owed by you to people…”
It was especially bad when business had to shut down because of virus surges.
The situation got so bad that the Lovers Leap attraction at Yardley Chase close to Southfield was closed indefinitely and staff positions made redundant in June of this year. Jakes had acquired the scenic, romantic attraction, under a lease agreement with Government in late 2017.
It was making impressive strides when COVID-19 hit. “I expect that in time we will be able to reopen Lovers Leap once things improve,” said Henzell.
Beyond closure of Lovers Leap, other tough business decisions became compulsory.
“We had to sell land to remain solvent,” he said.
Henzell said he was able to plan ahead and to some extent prepare for the severity of the COVID-19 crisis because of research he did on the Spanish flu pandemic of a century ago, which killed millions across the globe.
“I did my reading and realised that, that pandemic lasted two/three years and I said to myself, 'If that lasted so long, why not COVID?' That realisation helped a lot,” said Henzell.
He knows that the current pandemic is set to last longer than two years. How much longer, and the possible consequences, remain big questions.