By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Chamber of Commerce's chief executive last night praised the Prime Minister for "striking a good balance" between COVID-19's economic and health challenges in his decision to relax restrictions.
Jeffrey Beckles told Tribune Business that Dr Hubert Minnis' decision to move from total New Providence lockdown to re-opening the domestic economy within a week should not be characterised as a "180 degree about-turn" as some are likely to portray it.
Instead, he argued that the private sector and the Government needed to work in partnership to "recover the economy" and employment while mitigating the health risks associated with COVID-19 and avoiding a further surge in infections.
With The Bahamas and world having little choice but to live with the virus for the foreseeable future, the Chamber chief added that this nation will have to constantly adapt and adjust to what works against COVID-19 and what does not "until we find our lane".
Hailing the Prime Minister's address as "well-received" by both the Chamber and wider private sector, Mr Beckles said it appeared as if the business community's recommendations had been adopted by the Government.
"I think he did exactly that: Struck a good balance between health and the economy," he told this newspaper of Dr Minnis' address. "It speaks to the fact they can perfectly co-exist, especially understanding that COVID-19 will be with us for a while.
"We certainly need the health and economic protocols, and understanding of how to balance both. A strong economy is critical..... The balance was struck today, and it's a good indication of what we need to do to get moving."
It was not entirely clear, though, what prompted the Prime Minister to shift from full New Providence lockdown to relaxing restrictions, and partially restoring the domestic economy to what it looked like pre-August, in the space of a week. Public health officials sought to justify the move by saying a new analysis of COVID-19 data in the past 48 hours was not necessary.
Dr Minnis, though, permitted non-essential retailers to begin offering curbside and delivery/pick-up services once again from Monday, August 31, while office-based companies are being allowed to operate with the necessary physical distancing restrictions.
"We are committed to a measured, phased re-opening of the economy and society, based on specific health metrics," the Prime Minister said. "It is hoped that this will aid the public to gauge when there may be more relaxed or more restrictive measures."
However, one retailer, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Tribune Business last night that they will not open to offer curb side services as the losses involved justified them remaining closed. Other retailers have also described curbside services as difficult to pull-off and generating just 20-30 percent of the revenues they will earn in-store.
Dr Minnis' address indicates economic concerns are now factoring more heavily into the Government's COVID-19 decision-making. The switch of emphasis comes following a rising crescendo of warnings from individual businesses and private sector groups that lockdowns/restrictions are pushing many firms beyond the point of no return, and that there soon may not be much of an economy left to recover.
Further motivating factors may also be the warnings that the assistance being provided by the National Insurance Board (NIB) and Ministry of Finance to distressed Bahamians and companies facing economic hardship is due to expire at end-September. Without an economic recovery, the Government will be faced with having to rapidly repurpose multi-million dollar sums - all of which could impact its borrowing and deficit plans.
Mr Beckles, though, said he and the Chamber "don't necessarily see it as a 180 degree" u-turn in terms of the Prime Minister and government's approach. "He's being guided by good advice, the science and then economic needs of our community," the Chamber chief executive added of Dr Minnis.
"It's a continual evolution. As this process begins to recover our economy we have to be mindful that things could change at a moment's notice. We have to be adaptive and attentive to the environment, and adapt if things are not working. There has to be a whole new paradigm that says we have to be in continuous adaptive mode until we find our lane that we are satisfied with."
Mr Beckles added that The Bahamas needed to learn from the practices employed by Caribbean rivals that have, to-date, safely re-opened such as Barbados and Bermuda, while using the domestic economy as "a testing ground" for the COVID-19 health protocols that need to be adopted for re-opening the tourism economy and attracting its vital foreign currency inflows.
"It is essential to reopen the domestic economy as soon as possible, with the reopening of the external economy to follow as soon as feasible given the economic conditions overseas," Dr Minnis said in a nod to this.
"We must get our tourism sector up and running, as safely and as rapidly as possible. Thus far, there is no other economic sector as prepared to deliver the range of employment and the depth of tax revenues with great immediacy like tourism.
"As with every other country, there will be no 'quick fix' to this grave global economic situation. But provided we all are prepared to move out of our collective comfort zone and undo the constraints that have too often defined us for decades, we can and we will shape a future Bahamian economy that is more dynamic, more resilient, more sustainable and most of all, more inclusive."
Dr Minnis said the Government will review the regulatory and licensing regime for street vendors, ensuring they meet health code requirements, while offering grant funding through the Small Business Development Centre to help them upgrade and expand their offerings.