By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamas must urgently develop a COVID-19 “game plan” covering all potential scenarios to prevent its economic recovery from becoming a “salvage” operation, a chamber chief urged yesterday.
Ken Hutton, the Abaco Chamber of Commerce’s president, told Tribune Business the country needed to come up with a strategy that balanced both health and economic priorities and “stick to it” if it is to avoid further damaging lockdowns.
Emphasising that he was not casting blame on the government, as it continues to grapple with the COVID-19 challenges and dilemmas facing all other countries, Mr Hutton said such an “all-encompassing” plan that was made publicly available would also foster badly-needed investor, business and consumer confidence in The Bahamas’ recovery prospects.
“Speaking strictly from a business standpoint, the thing that impacts the most: Businesses love predictability, businesses love certainty,” he told this newspaper. “At this point, not only for Abaco but the country in general, there’s no certainty.
“I know it’s a big thing to ask, but when it comes to will people invest here, will people rebuild, will people come in with new projects and look at investing in Abaco again, that’s not going to come until we have certainty. The sooner we get to that stage the better for Abaco and the country.
“People will not put money into a place where there’s uncertainty, where they don’t know what the rules are from week to week. We need to get that certainty back as soon as possible, and not just for the business and investor community, but for the entire economy because those investors employ people.
Reclaiming that uncertainty is also critical to boosting The Bahamas’ foreign currency reserves and maintaining the one:one fixed exchange rate peg with the US dollar. John Rolle, the Central Bank’s governor, this week underscored the “urgency” of finding an alternative foreign currency source to tourism if the foundation of the Bahamian economy is not to come under severe pressure in 2021.
Mr Rolle pointed to foreign direct investment (FDI) as the most immediate alternative foreign currency source, but this is unlikely to materialise unless the border restrictions and uncertainty created by repeated COVID-19 lockdowns falls away, leading into Mr Hutton’s call for The Bahamas to immediately develop a strategy mitigating the health and financial challenges posed by the virus.
Citing one example, the Abaco Chamber of Commerce president told this newspaper: “Hospitality workers, if they’re waiting for their property to re-open and then it’s closed again, reopens again, and is then closed again, that’s an inordinate amount of uncertainty. It’s a lot of economic stress and a lot of psychological stress.
“We need to come up with a strategy and we need to stick with it. That strategy must encompass as many of the circumstances and situations that come up as possible. That strategy needs to be made public so everyone knows what the game plan is.
“Right now we don’t know what’s happening day-to-day, and that does not provide a lot of comfort to people because there world is turned upside down already. I’m not blaming the Government for this, as other countries are facing the same issues, but we need to sit down and make a real plan going forward,” Mr Hutton continued.
“This might not end in two weeks or four weeks. We need to have a strategy going forward otherwise we will not be looking at economic recovery; we will be looking at economic salvage. I believe this can be done. I don’t think it’s anything outside the realm of possibilities. We’ve got some really smart people to help get this done, we need to get this done, and we need a plan.”
The infectious nature of COVID-19, and its ability to spread rapidly not just in The Bahamas but its major tourist and investment source markets, makes developing the sort of strategy called for by Mr Hutton especially challenging since the situation can alter in hours and so much of the science/health surrounding the virus has yet to be learnt.
The Abaco Chamber of Commerce chief, meanwhile, said it was “100 percent critical” to the island’s post-Dorian reconstruction that building activities have been allowed to continue amid the latest two-week lockdown.
“I don’t want to deal in hypotheticals, but it would have set us back a lot more than two weeks” had it not been permitted, Mr Hutton said. However, he questioned whether the building materials supply chain will be disrupted as hardware stores such as his own Premier Importers, and Abaco Hardware, have only been allowed to open on Monday, Wednesday and Friday while being restricted to curbside services.
And, while acknowledging it was “difficult to differentiate”, Mr Hutton also pointed to inconsistencies in the Government’s emergency orders. For Maxwell’s Supermarket, which also offers hardware products, has been allowed to “open straight through” unlike his business.
Describing himself as “not surprised” by the Government’s decision to impose another national lockdown, and acknowledging it was “definitely necessary” on islands such as New Providence and Grand Bahama due to the escalating infection rates, Mr Hutton joined the chorus of private sector executives questioning the need for a “one-size fits all” approach.
“I don’t necessarily agree it was needed in Abaco,” he said. “Abaco is essentially a construction site. We don’t have the population base that is susceptible to COVID-19, as we don’t have a lot of elderly people here, and most people are outside most of the time. We are not exactly a tourist hub.
“It’s a different environment here. Rather than a one-size fits all solution to this maybe more time needs to be spent looking at it on a population by population basis. Eleuthera is not Andros, is not New Providence, is not Grand Bahama, is not Abaco. I don’t think a one-size fits all solution to the entire country is going to be the best solution.”
Abaco has just one confirmed COVID-19 case on the mainland, together with nine on Great Guana Cay and ten on Moore’s Island. Mr Hutton’s concerns were also echoed by Pedro Rolle, the Exuma Chamber of Commerce president, who voiced fears that the current two-week lockdown will be “the death knell” for restaurants and many other businesses on the island.
“Nothing good is going to happen. Economically it’s going to be devastating,” Mr Rolle told Tribune Business of the shutdown. “We are left to wonder why we are having a system that has been designed for one being put in place for all. One national mandate should not be required for all the islands.”
Emphasising that he was not calling for Bahamians “to become careless and disregard” all the health protocols put in place to combat COVID-19, he argued that Exuma - with just three confirmed cases - should also have been spared a full lockdown unlike New Providence and Grand Bahama.
“We don’t have to go that route for the islands other than Nassau and Grand Bahama,” he said. “I’m convinced that this is going to cause certain businesses to shut down and never recover, especially businesses like restaurants. I really believe a great number of them will not recover. This is a death knell.
“It’s one thing to live with hope and this shutdown will kill that. They’re not going to have the reserves to open up again. It’s going to kill the restaurants, it’s going to kill the rentals, which have become a big deal in Exuma. The effect of this is going to be devastating simply because people don’t have jobs.
“I don’t want to sound as if I am blaming the authorities; I understand they have to make decisions. It would be a wonderful thing if they got consultation from the Family Islands, and these things were made from a Family Island perspective as well. This is definitely a disappointment. It’s going to hurt.”