By YOURI KEMP
Tribune Business Reporter
Bahamian gas station operators yesterday said they were struggling to cope with a COVID-19-inspired demand surge that they compared to pre-hurricane preparations.
Vasco Bastian, the Esso station owner at East Street and Soldier Road, told Tribune Business: “We can’t cope. We have had issues in the petroleum business for several years, and this lockdown does not made it any easier for us.
“There has been an influx in customers coming in, which is always good and we welcome customers, but the overall picture in the oil industry on the whole is - particularly with the retailers - they have always struggled in this business. You have to be able to keep your head above water. As I said earlier we appreciate the business, but it is a challenge - and a challenge across the board. I speak for everybody in the business.”
Mr Bastian said electricity costs have “skyrocketed” over the past several years, and added: “We have the high cost of electricity running a 24-hour, seven days a week operation like a gas station. Every pump, every cooler, every cash register, every air hose all runs on electricity.
“The oil market has been fluctuating, and people have to understand that with the price of oil, when it fluctuates and it goes up, you would incur a debt associated with the cost of that fuel. When it goes down you would still be left with that same debt that you would have incurred when that price of fuel went up.
As an example, Mr Bastian added: “If you were to buy something for $1 and it goes up to $1.75, and then it goes down to $1.25, you would have lost that 50 cents you would have gained in your cost. How do you offset that when your costs went from $1 to $1.75, and then it goes back down to $1.25.”
“As far as the COVID-19 sales, it has been steady and it is similar to a hurricane rush. Our customers are coming in and they are finding the basic essentials that they need here, and a lot of persons are buying gas and diesel for the various generators anticipating that there may be a power outage at some point.”
However, Mr Bastian added that “business has not been something that I would write home to my Grammy about. It has been steady and we appreciate the business”. He also called for better communication between the government and the petroleum retailers over the hours during which the latter were allowed to open during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“For example, we closed on Monday at 1pm and we were told that we could have stayed open until 5pm,” he said. “The previous lockdown we closed at 5pm, but there was miscommunication between the government and the retailers as a whole with regard to Monday.
“Other than that we have been not happy, because we have seen a 50 percent to 60 percent fall-off in sales. How do we regain and bounce back from a 60 percent reduction in sales within the next couple of weeks or months when the price of gas is regulated by the government of the day. So we will be looking to the government of the day for relief. At least my company will be looking for relief.
“What type of assistance would the government give my staff during the lockdown period? What relief would the government give me as a businessman with regard to my VAT payment, in regard to my business license that I have already paid? How could we get some credit on that?”
Mr Bastian also gave a bleak outlook for the Bahamian economy over the next eight months, adding: “This global economic shutdown will have a significant impact on business people in this country for at least six to eight months.
“We have already finished the first quarter of 2020. We are in the beginning of the second quarter. We will need at least three to four months to take us into the beginning of the third quarter. September to October is already a slow month for business and the economy in general, and then we go right into Christmas. I don’t see this economy recovering until late 2020 or January or February of 2021.”
Mr Bastian continued: “No one anticipated this, and my first priority is the well-being of the Bahamian people. Yes, I want to make a profit as a business person, but my first objective as a business person is to make sure that my staff and the Bahamian people, my customers, are safe and they’re healthy because if they are not safe and they’re not healthy then I do not have a business because I need them to help fuel my business.
“This is devastating for me, and it is devastating for the Bahamian people. We need to put all hands on deck going forward if this happens again. There is no comparison to this, there is no comparison. With hurricanes in The Bahamas, we know they are coming, we plan for them accordingly to the best of our ability, but this came like a man getting ready to go to the church to get married and all of a sudden the bride isn’t there and there is nobody in the church.
“We have 60 percent of our sales reduced across the industry as a result of this COVID-19. I have 30 employees here that have to be paid, and those 30 staff have families. We look at the multiplier effect, indirectly I employ 90 people, and some of our employees are on minimum wage and some are not.”
Zhivago Beckles, general manager of Shell Golden Gates, added: “We have a great number of staff and we have been able to cope thus far. We have not seen anything unusual, not more than the ordinary or unexpected as a result of the customer frenzy, because we have dealt with this type of situation before during hurricane season.
“We are able to handle these types of situations before. We have definitely seen these types of situations before.”