By DENISE MAYCOCK
Tribune Freeport Reporter
Nearly 200 frustrated Grand Bahama business owners stand ready to protest from today if their pleas to reopen their businesses continue to be ignored by officials at the Office of the Prime Minister in Freeport.
Small businesses not classified as essential services have been shuttered for five weeks now due to ongoing government lockdown orders to control the spread of the coronavirus.
Fearing another week of lockdown by the Prime Minister, business operators on Saturday had reached their wits end. Some 180 small businesspersons attended a Zoom meeting discussing concerns about the ongoing lockdown and closure of businesses.
“We need to get back to business… so we can begin to get this economy back up and running,” stressed a rental car operator. “And so, our suggestion is to open our economy and allow us to be able to fight COVID-19.”
By taking a collective stand, they are hoping their concerns will not continue to go ignored by officials at the OPM, after receiving no response to letters sent individually asking for the lockdown on their businesses to be lifted.
Yesterday, a letter signed by nearly 200 business operators outlining their concerns and suggestions for safe reopening was sent to the OPM.
“We will protest if the Prime Minister come Monday announces a lockdown for GB… we have to take action,” demanded the business owner, who says he is willing to defy lockdown order by reopening his business if it comes down that.
“They cannot continue to ignore us, and if they do, this is going to be our position. The protest is based on the outcome of what the government decides to do with the information we have provided to them,” he said.
“If they decide to lock us down on Monday for seven days, are you prepared to be lockdown for seven more days? If they do not respond, are you prepared to continue to be ignored?” he asked.
The small business operators feel their concerns are being disregarded due to the lack of response from the government.
“I feel really disrespected… it’s just like, who cares? Even if I had gotten a message acknowledging (my letter) that would have been satisfactory to me. But nothing at all, so what is that saying to us?” another business operator complained.
A local civil engineer said that clearly the government does not have a plan. “It’s been more than five months, they shown no plan; they have advised that COVID will be around for quite a while and they offered no plan,” he said. “That is obvious they have no plan, and I think they need to be shown a way forward because they don’t have a way forward.”
A female business operator said Grand Bahama is unique and must be dealt with differently than Nassau.
“The government needs to understand that GB is in a very unique situation. We have reached a point now where change needs to take place,” she said.
A food distributor stressed the lockdowns are “just not necessary” and are destroying GB’s economy.
“The economy of the country doesn’t have to be destroyed in the name of COVID, and there are examples in the Caribbean and around world. There are many countries in the Caribbean and many countries in the world that are open for business, that are practising all the necessary protocols and refusing to destroy their economy in the name of COVID,” said the concerned business operator.
“The plan exists in many countries and that is, simply allow business owners to provide opportunity for employees to come (back to) work, practising all the protocols. I support what is being done wholeheartedly, and this is just not necessary.”
A small restaurant operator indicated that there is a “ripple effect” and everyone is hurting, not just businesses.
“We are all frustrated; it is more than just the business community,” she said.
“I have people calling me every day saying they need food and clothing, and it is a ripple effect in our community when small businesses close – people are out there hungry and need food.”
When a concerned clothing store operator asked what the five GB MPs are doing on their behalf, she was informed that none has advocated or done anything to assist or support the reopening of small businesses.
Another irate woman in the Zoom meeting called on businesses in the Bahamas to stand united as a people and to put aside politics.
“We need to have our economy opened,” she appealed.
“GB has proven when we went 64 days without any cases that we were following protocols - wearing the masks, social distancing and sanitising – and it proved effective. And based on that, I believe it is important that the government of The Bahamas open up our economy.”
The businesswoman indicated that they aware of the seriousness of COVID-19 and that business operators are “capable and willing to enforce the protocols to ensure safety of all Bahamians and the continuance of our businesses.”
She then expressed frustration over the political division perpetuated by past and present governments to divide Bahamians.
The situation at hand, she stressed, is bigger than politics - one that impacts the future of The Bahamas, and “the government must come forward with… plans that will cause us as a nation to move upward, forward, onward and together.”
“We are one Bahamas, we are one people and we must be united. This is not a Nassau or Freeport situation… I call on people of Nassau and GB to stand united as a people,” she said.
“To the pastors who have been silent, we call on you to take a stand with the people. We are not inciting unrest, however, we must take a stand… we must act.”
“I call on the Bahamian people, this is not FNM, PLP or DNA, we are sick and tired of the political rhetoric or ‘Russian roulette’ they have played with the people of the Bahamas. Please people of Nassau and Out Islands hear my cry and stand together as Bahamians.”
In a final plea, the business woman said: “To the government and MPs we ask and beg you to hear our cries, hear our plan. We ask you that you will not come Monday and present fear and despair.”
Here are some of the other comments businesspersons made in the Zoom conference on Saturday.
“I agree with the protest, but I would protest on Monday morning so that the protest would be able to be seen in Nassau before he (the Prime Minister) speaks to the nation, showing the Competent Authority, can see the business owners are serious.”
Another said: “We complying and no resolution, so might as well we stand and try make a difference.”
“Better to STAND, then to Fall. I’d rather STAND trying than to don’t try at all,” one woman commented.
“So why didn’t our MPs for Grand Bahama stand behind the plan that was submitted by the Chamber - this is so disheartening,” another said.
“Think about it, the government has not lost any salary these past five months or no Health officials has lost any salary, think about it.
“Business owners have had enough and want answers,” another said.
“I am in full agreement (of this),” said one business operator in the travel industry.
Another person indicated that the mere fact that so many businesses attended Saturday’s Zoom meeting speaks volumes.
“This meeting in itself is the strongest message I think we could communicate to anyone. The more than 170 persons on this platform, is a stand, in and of itself,” someone commented.
“I thank you, the organisers of this meeting for the tone and approach you are taking. A level-headed, reasonable approach to stand up and be heard. The silent protest will speak far more volumes than shouting,” another individual said.
“A well worth effort this meeting has been. Let us continue to determine our fate,” said another attendee.
“We have 5MPs, the GBPA, Freeport City Council and a Minister of State for Grand Bahama. That is a lot of leadership,” another pointed out.
“What are the Port’s (Grand Bahama Port Authority) comments on this protest? Will the licencees be protected?” some asked.
If there are no changes following Sunday’s letter, or a planned protests, one business owner commented: “For me, once we are ignored after the march my next move would be to open my business. Just the way we have been ignored, to also ignore them and open my business. And deal with whatever comes from that. Again, we are not breaking any law. And so, if we are ignored after protests for me, I will open my business to the public and advertise that (my business) is open for business.”
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