By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamian construction industry would have "come to a halt within a week to 10 days" had the Prime Minister yesterday not relaxed COVID-19 restrictions on hardware stores being able to open.
Robert Myers, head of the Caribbean Group of Companies, told Tribune Business that the entire industry - including sub-contractors and tradespeople - would have run out of critical materials and parts had the near-total lockdown of New Providence's economy not been eased following concerted pressure.
"We would have had some difficulty if no hardware stores were open, as we had no advance notice to accumulate needed materials for the rest of the week," he explained. "In the short-term we could have worked around it for a week, but in the long-term it would have been untenable.
"We've got to be able to get materials, and get them from hardware stores, electrical stores, plumbing stores. The sub-trades need to be able to buy materials from their suppliers also. If you close the supply chain down, eventually you choke off the construction industry anyway."
The Prime Minister's u-turn on New Providence's lockdown has permitted food stores, water depots, gas stations, hardware stores and private pharmacies to re-open from 6am to 9pm with effect from today.
Dr Minnis' reversal came after strong push back and criticism yesterday from multiple groups, which all voiced concern about the suddenness and severity of a move that left many Bahamians - especially those without jobs and income - unable to purchase the necessary supplies to see them through the next seven days.
In a statement issued by his office, he also indicated that the move was prompted by the emergence in the mid-Atlantic of a weather system that forecasters believe will develop into the 2020 hurricane season's next named storm and make its way towards The Bahamas. Therefore, he had little choice but to relax restrictions so that Bahamians can prepare.
The relaxation, together with the extended opening hours, has encouraged at least one prominent Bahamian retailer to emerge from a previously-planned two-week hibernation. Kelly's Home Centre, in a posting on its Facebook page, confirmed it will re-open today from 7am to 8pm.
CBS Bahamas (Commonwealth Building Supplies) confirmed it will open today with 20 percent off on essential hurricane supplies. However, Builder's Mall - the Wulff Road-based operator of F.Y.P, Tile King and The Paint Centre - said it will remain closed today.
It added: "We are doing some behind the scenes work to improve the overall shopping experience for our loyal customers. We apologise for any inconvenience. Again, we thank you for your support and understanding during a rapidly-evolving situation as we make every effort to support our customers, associates and the communities we serve."
Leonard Sands, the ex-Bahamian Contractors Association (BCA) president, conceded that the Prime Minister had been forced to make some hard decisions as a result of the explosion in COVID-19 cases, of which another 90 were confirmed on New Providence yesterday.
However, he added that there were other developments that the Government has to account for besides COVID-19, one of which is the need for persons to repair and prepare their homes and businesses to withstand an active 2020 hurricane season.
"Domestic construction is still underpinning this economy," Mr Sands told Tribune Business. "Foreign direct investment is doing a lot, but let me explain what the industry means. There's spin-offs in persons buying materials, persons going to grocery stores... It's no surprise construction was left open. You're talking millions of dollars.
"The country needs to keep construction going on with restaurants and others closed. Your economic engine may be low but it has to keep roaring, and construction is doing that. These are unprecedented times, but I think that we have to find a way to work, live and be safe with COVID-19. That's the only way we move forward. I cannot tell them how to do it, but this government has to find a way."
Mr Sands described yesterday morning's protests against New Providence's near-total lockdown as "scary", and not something that The Bahamas needs to see repeated as it raises the spectre of civil unrest.
"People were very reactionary and uncertain," he added. "They did not know where their next meal was coming from with enough certainty. We saw people freaked out and scared, wondering how my family will survive beyond tomorrow.
"It gripped us and we responded to it in a way I never thought Bahamians would respond, and I don't want to see that again. We have to look at how we fix it so we don't have that reaction again, and make everyone comfortable to get us through this process."