By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Eleuthera’s Chamber of Commerce president has warned the economy “cannot live on the lockdown seesaw for ever”, with The Bahamas now facing a “salvage” as opposed to recovery operation.
Thomas Sands, in e-mailed replies to Tribune Business questions just prior to the prime minister’s confirmation yesterday afternoon that Eleuthera has its first confirmed COVID-19 case, said business confidence had been “shaken” by the latest lockdown and the uncertainty of what will happen once it ends.
Calling for a “clearly-defined strategy” to address all COVID-19 eventualities, he added that the primary concern was to ensure that the cycle of “opening up and shutting down” was not repeated since it was simply unsustainable for the private sector and wider economy.
“Eleuthera’s economy is being devastated just as much as other islands in The Bahamas, including New Providence. The night that the lockdown was announced I got a text message from an Eleuthera business owner who put it best, and I quote: ‘This lockdown is going to totally destroy what little economy we had mustered up’,” Mr Sands told this newspaper.
“She is expressing the sentiment of most business owners here who are fighting to survive. We felt that we were on the rebound. This will certainly set us back and, without a clear idea of what’s going to take place once we reopen, it has shaken the confidence of business owners throughout the island......
“I think job losses and business closures are inevitable. Small businesses are being the hardest hit. Restaurants that were allowed during previous lockdowns to offer take-out or curbside service have had to close their doors for two weeks, maybe longer. They will not likely survive if this carries on beyond the two weeks. Those business owners and their workers are now worse off than before.”
Mr Sands added: “We cannot deny that our nation is facing skyrocketing positive COVID cases, and our Government feels that their only means of addressing this is by locking down the country. For me it’s not so much about how we address this current situation but how do we ensure that this doesn’t continue.
“The reality is that we cannot live on this seesaw forever. Opening up and shutting down is not sustainable. What businesses here need is a clearly-defined strategy that outlines how we will operate in a COVID environment.
“It seems clear that, as a country that relies heavily on tourism, we will not be able to completely eradicate it without a vaccine. What we need to understand is how to live with it. We need protocols that will ensure that the economy stays open despite COVID cases. And we need these protocols to be strictly enforced.”
Reiterating that constant lockdowns to control COVID-19 represented “an unsustainable strategy” for any country,” Mr Sands said: “We are counting on our Government to implement policies that can safeguard our people and economy. It can no longer be either-or but both are required in order to ensure that we all don’t end up in economic ruin.
“That means we have to quickly identify ways to drive the economy. We would ask the Bahamas government to consider Instead of locking down businesses, let’s allow businesses to continue to operate Monday to Friday 6am 6pm and institute a 7pm to 5am curfew, seven days per week.
“I agree with the 14-day quarantine for all persons entering the country until a more fool-proof way of confirming COVID-19 status is achieved. Ideally, it would be great if persons travelling could take a COVID test at the airport, and their status be confirmed before boarding the flight. I realise that we are not there yet, but that would be an ideal scenario. Ultimately we need to find that balance. We are not finding it through lockdowns.”
The Eleuthera Chamber chief warned Bahamians that “we must now think in terms of salvaging versus recovery of the economy, and we invite The Bahamas government to consider creating an environment which will propel economic activity as quickly as possible”.
He urged the Minnis administration to move all investment projects in the approvals pipeline quickly through to the construction phase, while also providing a significant incentives/tax breaks package for Bahamian investors in the Family Islands and concessions for all real estate transactions that can be closed within 12 months.
Mr Sands said families who had lost jobs and incomes were especially grateful for the food assistance being provided by the Government and partners such as the One Eleuthera Foundation, which the Prime Minister yesterday said is currently supporting some 27,705 families - or more than 110,000 persons - nationwide.
That means more than one in four Bahamians and residents are currently receiving food assistance, and the Eleuthera Chamber of Commerce chief voiced concern as to how long the Government’s own financial resources would enable it to keep providing $1m per week for food assistance given its projected $1.3bn fiscal deficit for this year.
“We know that our country cannot afford to keep this up forever,” Mr Sands said. “I think the more important question is how will the Government pay for the huge amount of debt it is now incurring. Will we see higher taxes? Will VAT increase? Alongside the much-needed assistance we also need clarity on the Government’s plan to manage the country’s debt, which we are all on the hook for.”