By YOURI KEMP
and NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Reporters
Food retailers yesterday criticised the "confusion" and "bad calculations" that resulted from the government's last-minute changes to their store opening hours over the holiday weekend.
Supermarket operators said the constant revisions, first allowing them to open on Sunday and then to do the same yesterday, had left them with insufficient time to mobilise staff and alert consumers. One even said he initially thought the decision to allow food stores to open on Emancipation Day was "fake news".
Several argued that "the way it is being done is not right", with the arrival of Hurricane Isaias playing havoc with the government's weekend lockdown plans. The competent authority, meaning the Prime Minister's Office, had first given them permission to open only on Saturday, with all food stores to be closed on Sunday and Monday in a bid to limit COVID-19's spread.
With Isaias' passage wiping out Saturday, the government gave the sector permission to re-open on Sunday instead. Then, late on Sunday afternoon, food retailers were also informed they could open on Emancipation Day.
Bradley Rolle, Centreville Food Market's assistant manager, told Tribune Business: "It did appear as if there may have been some bad calculations on behalf of the government in their communications with the food stores being open on Saturday. As you are aware, the storm actually started to hit us around 10am on Saturday morning or earlier, and that was straight through into the afternoon.
"That was the day food stores were supposed to have been open, so it was a miscalculation there... We lost Saturday and we thought that they would probably give us a make-up day. They did that on Sunday, so we opened and we had some customers. People came in and bought a few items.
"Then it seems as if there was another miscommunication as it relates to the Emancipation Day Holiday, because when we left work on Sunday I actually told my staff that they didn't have to work today [Monday], because based on the communication coming from the competent authority food stores weren't supposed to be open and only hardware stores were going to be open today," Mr Rolle added.
"Then this late circular came out around 5pm on Sunday that food stores, gas stations, pharmacies and hardware stores are to be open today [Monday]. This is confusing. The way this is being done, it's not right, especially for retail food stores who have to make plans to get staff in along with timing and a lot of other stuff. So we had to go scrambling around and calling people, but it is what it is.
"People are also confused about the curfew times. First there was a curfew set from 7pm to 5am, and then when this hurricane was coming through our island chain, the competent authority decided he was going to relax the curfew to 10pm to 5am, and that caused mass confusion," he continued.
"Police officers didn't even recognise that the curfew had been changed, and they were telling people that the store is supposed to be closed at 6pm and that we had to be home by 7pm. We are trying to show them that the competent authority said that the curfew is relaxed now, so it is a conundrum.
"I'm understanding that some food stores are now recognising that yesterday morning they could have opened their doors, but knowing that yesterday was a holiday and knowing that they had to pay staff double-pay, they decided to stay closed."
However, Rupert Roberts, Super Value's president, told Tribune Business that the government's move to permit Sunday and Monday opening was "a relief" because otherwise a three-day lockdown "double whammy" that was too long for customers "spending hand to mouth" would have resulted.
"We were hoping that they did it," he said of the government. "Three days locked down was just too long. We requested they allow us to come in and stock on Saturday, otherwise we would open to customers with empt shelves on Tuesday, and then they allowed us to open on Sunday.
"When they originally planned this the hurricane was out there but had not arrived. That made three days that supermarkets were not open for, and that was too long a stretch to go; those that spend hand to mouth.
"That three days was too long. That's why they allowed it. It was a relief to the public. It was a double whammy; we had a lockdown and a hurricane. We've never had that before." Mr Roberts said the need to maintain COVID-19 health protocols, and especially the social distancing, had also contributed to the re-emergence of long queues outside food stores and may have prevented shoppers from acquiring everything they needed pre-Isaias.
Centreville Food Market's Mr Rolle, though, called on the competent authority to increase its use of social media as a means to communicate with Bahamians.
"When this COVID-19 shutdown started, the food stores were making bundles, but I can tell you now we are grasping for straws as it has just slowed down completely. We have adequate supplies, but jobs are an issue even as the economy started to get back to normal.
"With all of the new restrictions it is causing an issue; people just don't have the money," Mr Rolle said. "It has slowed down tremendously and Rupert Roberts would have alluded to that over a month ago."
Atwell Ferguson, Golden Gates Supermarket's general manager said: "Things were slow today [Monday]. Friday went well, however." He blamed that on the "late notice" for Sunday and Monday opening, and said: "I first thought it was fake news because it was almost around 9pm on Sunday night when I heard the news that we could open up on Emancipation Day. He can't drop it on us like that.
"Lockdown was supposed to be on Sunday and Monday, so I don't know what caused the competent authority to open them up, but since he said to open up, we opened. Friday was a good day as everyone was piling up and getting ready for the lockdown and the hurricane at the same time, so they stocked up for that."
Mr Ferguson said he had adequate supplies and "little to no issues" with having product in place for his customers despite the COVID-19 concerns and hurricane threat.
He added: "Things have levelled back down to the way it was before the pandemic and it's just normal. I guess a lot of people lost their jobs and people are watching their money, but any time a panic button is pressed I just don't know where people find their money as they just come rushing in and it's like they are buying groceries for the whole week. Then after that initial rush, everything just goes dead."