By NEIL HARTNELL
and YOURI KEMP
Tribune Business Reporters
The Bahamian private sector was yesterday said to be in discussions with the government to address "low hanging fruit" that can aid the economy amid the latest COVID-19 lockdown.
Jeffrey Beckles, the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers Confederation's chief executive, told Tribune Business that food wholesalers and hardware/construction supply stores were critical components that had seemingly been left off the list of essential services allowed to operate over the next two weeks.
"We've been able to establish a cordial relationship with the government, and have already begun to share with them some ideas as to how to adjust the current environment to help the local economy," he explained.
"It's a broad-based approach. I'll give you an example. Food stores are permitted to open on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, but wholesalers are not allowed. A lot of wholesalers make up a significant portion of the supply chain all the way from 'Mom and Pop' stores to the major stores.
"It would be reasonable to figure out how to get wholesalers that supply food stores open so people can get food. That's a low hanging fruit. Construction is able to continue but the supply chain has been
Mr Beckles, meanwhile, said many businesses were already "teetering on closing" now that The Bahamas was entering its second national lockdown. "I think the mood right now is one of concern, and as I told one of my colleagues earlier, a lot of companies took a big hit," he added.
"In fairness to them, right now many of them are very nervous about these next couple of weeks and the impact it will have on them because most of them are teetering on closing in any event. Many of them had thoughts about whether they would survive, and so now to have another lockdown, right, wrong or indifferent, it is what it is. So they have to get through that and that is creating a bit of consternation for us."
Mr Beckles continued: "Obviously everyone is taking a beating, and obviously those sectors that are directly related to tourism and tourism supply chains are feeling it because they have gone from something to nothing. The feeling is being felt across the board, and so I don't know if there is one group that is exempted.
"Obviously we are extremely concerned about the SME (small and medium sized enterprises) community and those small businesses that have been really serving as the backbone of the local economy for many decades. We are very concerned about them and whether or not all of them can weather this storm."
Turning to how the Ministry of Finance's tax deferral initiative has been assisting businesses during this COVID-19 shutdown period, Mr Beckles said: "We have been advised that the response has been surprisingly positive.
"These are extraordinary times, and whether or not the plans seem to be sufficient or not, the issue is the effort is being made to provide stimulus to the SME community, and the SME community has been responding and taking advantage of it. That's a positive thing and we will continue to encourage businesses to do so moving forward.
Mr Beckles continued: "At this point we will continue to work with our stakeholders in the private sector and we will continue to engage at the policy level. This is an evolving environment we are in. It's a new one, and it is different, and we continue to encourage business owners to share their thoughts and their ideas.
"We are not going to get through this in a silo. We need the best and the brightest minds coming together consistently with a view of looking towards the future for the best practices, and be ready for the constant change."