By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Super Value's president last night said the reversal of New Providence's near-total lockdown was "better than back to normal" as his stores can now open for longer than they did pre-COVID-19.
Rupert Roberts told Tribune Business that his 13-store supermarket group has gained seven extra shopping hours per week, taking the total available to 103, after the Prime Minister's u-turn permitted food stores, water depots, gas stations, hardware stores and private pharmacies to re-open from 6am to 9pm.
Prior to the pandemic, Super Value opened from 7am to 9pm Mondays through Saturdays, and from 7am to 7pm on Sundays, making for a 96-hour week as Mr Roberts hailed Dr Hubert Minnis' relaxation of the most draconian restrictions yet as "a big relief" for all.
The Super Value chief argued that New Providence residents should have been given at least 48 hours' warning to prepare, and stock up on essential foods and water, prior to the near-total shutdown of commercial activity on the island housing the Bahamian capital.
He described his chain's stores as a "wreck" following Monday's panic-buying after residents flocked to food stores and other essential product/service providers once word began circulating of the Prime Minister's plans to combat the ongoing surge in COVID-19 New Providence cases.
"I'm much better than when I spoke to you this afternoon," Mr Roberts told this newspaper following Dr Minnis' lockdown u-turn. "We now have, until further notice, more shopping hours than we ever had, more choice than we had before. We have 103 shopping hours per week - seven more shopping hours."
He added that the increased hours, and more time and convenience afforded to Bahamians to shop, would ease the long lines seen outside all food retailers since the Government began tightening restrictions to combat the latest COVID-19 surge.
"We're really pleased that there are going to be no problems with the distance shopping, and no reason for panic shopping," Mr Roberts added. "We have the merchandise, we have the hours spread out. It's not only normal; it's better than back to normal. The rush should be over, and there's no reason to line up any more. People will be able to shop when they did before COVID. It's a big relief.
"We have had to cancel orders and juggle orders. Perishables came in yesterday [Monday], and we are holding them at our warehouse. We'll distribute them tomorrow morning [today] when the stores open. But we won't have the opportunity like we did in the past to get in and make the stores look like they're just opening up."
Mr Roberts confirmed that Super Value would continue to apply temperature checks to all incoming shoppers, provide hand sanitiser, and insist on mask wearing and social distancing as he urged against the imposition of any further total lockdowns to combat COVID-19's spread.
Instead, he urged the Government to crack down on businesses and individuals found guilty of violating COVID-19 health protocols, echoing similar calls made yesterday by the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers Confederation (BCCEC).
"They're endangering the life of others, and that's not fair to others," Mr Roberts said. "If they want to self-destruct, self-destruct elsewhere. I think the authorities, medical and legal, should become locked in to enforcing the proper procedures and keeping them and others safe."
The Prime Minister's lockdown 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.
Dr Minnis, in a statement issued by his office, indicated that his u-turn was also 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.
Prior to the Prime Minister's step back, Mr Roberts said Super Value's stores had been "left a wreck" by Monday's panic buying, which resulted in "bare shelves" and many locations "out of stock". Breadbasket items, in particular, proved a favourite target for shoppers.
"With the heavy traffic we had customers everywhere but in the roof and the ceiling," he added. "We used that backroom stock, which all stores have, and amounts to a week's supply. I think that's the worst we've ever had during this pandemic. We couldn't cope. We informed the Competent Authority we were being overrun, and asked if we were not going to be locked down, could they make a statement."
Mr Roberts, expressing surprise that the Government had opted for a lockdown given the World Health Organisation's (WHO) advice that countries should move away from such tactics, said more warning should have been given before it made Monday's move.
"It takes three days to do hurricane shopping, and there's one on the horizon," he said. "They should have given the public two days to shop with unlimited hours. We were asking the Competent Authority this afternoon if we could have permission to put up the hurricane shutters now. Let's be ready. We don't want food distribution in this country to be devastated."