By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamas faces “an economic implosion” within weeks unless the government relaxes the COVID-19 lockdown for domestic industries, an ex-Contractors Association chief warned yesterday.
Stephen Wrinkle told Tribune Business that The Bahamas “doesn’t have the luxury” to remain under current pandemic conditions much longer given that the private sector, employees and households are “in dire straits”.
Speaking before it was last night revealed that New Providence produced a daily record of 51 new COVID-19 cases, the former Bahamian Contractors Association (BCA) president urged the government to re-open all that remains of the domestic economy between 9am to 5pm daily otherwise “we won’t get it back”.
Pointing out that The Bahamas is likely approaching an unprecedented 50 percent unemployment rate, and with more than one in four Bahamians now requiring food assistance, Mr Wrinkle argued that the country can ill-afford to shut down for much longer as he called for the development of health and safety protocols that will allow all businesses to function safely with COVID-19.
While construction has been permitted to operate largely as normal, he said the supply chain disruption created by the restrictions imposed on hardware stores was impacting the cost and completion of his firm’s “several million dollars” joint venture with New Providence Development Company near the island’s western end.
The project, which involves construction of a storage warehouse and commerce park targeted at small and medium-sized businesses, has seen its completion date pushed back from summer 2020 to Christmas due to the delays caused by the COVID-19 lockdowns and associated restrictions.
Speaking from personal experience, Mr Wrinkle said “it can take several hours to get a couple of two by four’s (lumber) and some screws” from hardware stores as they are currently limited by the Government’s emergency powers order to curb side and pick-up service.
Besides the inefficiency and delay that contractors endure in obtaining building materials, he added that “more and more” hardware stores were likely to simply close down for the lockdown’s duration because the costs and logistical difficulties associated with providing such services outweighed the much-reduced revenue coming in.
Mr Wrinkle also revealed that the international supply chain has not been spared, as the time taken for building materials to be shipped directly from the US had increased at least four-fold, with product that usually took two to three weeks to arrive now taking eight to 16 weeks.
“Personally I would suggest that they open everything up from 9am to 5pm, and lockdown at 7pm at night,” he told this newspaper of the present COVID-19 restrictions. “This economy has got to be restarted. If we let this go on much longer there will be catastrophic repercussions in the private sector, make no mistake about it.
“We’re at a question of weeks before this economy collapses, implodes, and once that happens we cannot get it back. The sacrifice we’re making is minimal for the benefit. You cannot penalise a whole country for the problems a few have caused.
“We’re just not in that position. We don’t have that luxury. We certainly don’t have it any longer. We may have had it a few months ago, but people are now in dire straits.” Mr Wrinkle’s comment of “a few” refers to the Bahamians who travelled abroad to COVID-19 hot spots once the borders opened on July 1 and, aided by ill thought-out government restrictions, triggered the latest surge by bringing the virus home.
The Government, though, has always prioritised saving lives amid this pandemic. Its actions have always been driven by the underlying twin fears that the Bahamian population, with its prevalence of underlying non-communicable diseases, is especially vulnerable to COVID-19 while the already-weak public healthcare sector is simply unable to cope with a major surge in cases.
However, Mr Wrinkle argued: “I cannot fathom that the Government can’t comprehend the severity of this lockdown and the lag on economic impetus. It’s a high-risk game they’re playing.....
“It’s going to be a slow haul climbing out, and the longer you’ve locked down the local economy the longer it will take to rebuild. That’s the foundation we need for export growth. We need to get the local economy moving, because they’re talking about one in four people receiving food assistance and unemployment potentially being at 50 percent.
“I don’t see where the Government is cognisant of this in implementing protocols for the local economy. I don’t know where they’re getting their advice and information from. I just think the protocols could be put in place where the local economy could be reopened,” he continued.
“That’s a very important measure progress for the Government and the private sector. People go to work, don’t stay at home, get a pay cheque and the wheels begin to turn. That’s the start of recovery. Nobody’s going to come through and dump $100m in our lap. We have to stand on our own two feet. I hope they consider that very carefully before they extend the lockdown.”
Mr Wrinkle then backed Brent Burrows, CBS Bahamas general manager, in confirming the difficulties all retailers face in performing curb side and pick up services for clients. The ex-BCA chief said staff were constantly scurrying between customer vehicles and store, and having to take products back if they were incorrect.
“If the screws are the wrong size and they [staff] have to go back, they have 20 to 30 cars behind you to deal with,” he explained. “If they have written it up, they have to change it and do a credit. It’s not workable. The Competent Authority should be made aware by the large suppliers that it’s not workable.
“When you have 50,000 SKUs (stock keeping units) and are holding up 30 cars for $50 of stuff, it’s a big problem. It’s untenable. Realistically, it’s untenable. I think they really need to have another look at this lockdown situation they’ve put in place because I think it might be doing more harm than good on COVID containment. You’re backing people up and making them run around to get things.”
Turning to the impact on his firm’s current project, which is located near Mount Pleasant Village, Mr Wrinkle added: “We have trucks on the road every day getting a minimal amount of materials, and it’s unproductive time. We’ve suffered setbacks, and that’s going to have cost implications for the project.
“We also have materials backed up from US delays. When we used to have as two-three week delivery wait, we’re now up to an eight to 16-week wait. It’s a trickle down effect that is having serious repercussions on us because we’re low on the totem pole.
“We’re working the numbers now. We were going to be open in early summer and now we’re looking at Christmas.” Mr Wrinkle explained that the delay meant the project would be unable to lease storage space in the warehouse to business tenants this summer as planned, impacting both himself and potential clients.
The 100,000 square feet of buildings, which are set in several acres, are designed to meet demand for office and storage space in western New Providence as business and commerce expands in that area. The project, which has been underway for a year, employs around 40-50 construction, but Mr Wrinkle said he was unsure how COVID-19 will impact its prospects once completed.