By KHRISNA RUSSELL
Tribune Chief Reporter
AN ATTORNEY and activist have urged the government to expunge the records of street coconut vendors who were charged and fined for breaking emergency orders, insisting Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis’ plan to offer them grants to advance their businesses does not go far enough.
According to Wayne Munroe, QC, yesterday the Committee on the Prerogative of Mercy should now be directed to pardon each of the vendors and a consideration made on proper compensation.
Meanwhile, activist Khandi Gibson - who was instrumental in seeking help for the vendors to pay fines and acquired business licences for 22 of them - said offering grants neglects the sad reality that they all have criminal records, which poses a threat to their further advancement.
During a press conference Monday to announce several new developments in the country’s COVID-19 response, Dr Minnis said street vendors will be provided with financial grants.
“… Meaning that is money that they will not have to repay,” Dr Minnis said. “That is a gift from the government so that they can establish their business and expand their business.
“The coconut vendors or the coconut boys as they are called, the coconut vendors on the streets would be provided with the necessary materials and equipment to ensure safety of their coconut water.
“They will be provided with coolers and umbrellas and whatever items are necessary and this will be provided as grants from the government.”
Mr Munroe said he was unimpressed by this announcement because it appeared to be an admission by the Prime Minister that he was wrong for shutting the country down during the first COVID-19 wave.
He drew a comparison between that time frame and the second wave, which has seen more cases and deaths.
He said: “Insofar as these grants are concerned if we are correct and he was wrong… him opening us up is an admission that he was wrong, isn’t it?
“If you could open up when we have 1,700 plus infections and 40 something deaths and 90 people in hospital you really can’t justify closing us down with two infections, nobody in hospital and (a handful of) deaths. So bearing in mind that his speech last night was an admission that you can’t justify the initial lockdown to say that you are going to give me a grant when you have destroyed my business is unacceptable.
“The coconut vendors—I think one guy was fined $1,300 when you add all of it up.
“That’s going to be one hell of a cooler and umbrella and they’ll still have a criminal record.”
He continued: “So I think if he wanted to be honest and decent he would have the Prerogative Board of Mercy direct the Governor General to pardon everyone who was convicted of an offence of breaching the curfew. He would in settlement agree to fines paid and he should with the Ministry of Finance enter into discussions with businesses as to what compensation they will pay.
“Now if they cannot come up with the money they can enter schemes for instance that say you would take a certain reduction out of VAT payments or a certain reduction out of taxes.
“But don’t come and tell me we are opening up now when we are much worse than when you closed down and put me out of business and I must be happy? I must look like a fool.”
Jason Williams, 18, Marvin Joseph, 20 and 19-year-old Moreko Mackey were vendors charged in recent weeks.
For her part, Ms Gibson applauded the government for the effort, but said the wider picture was missed.
“Yes the guys were wrong,” she said. “They were out there selling coconut water and coconut jelly without a business licence like many other street vendors do. They were never locked up. But these young men were locked up and were charged, hauled before the courts.
“Jason Williams that was his first time ever being arrested at just 18-years-old and he was locked up. That was an experience for him.
“Then we have Marvin who was locked up and spent three days locked up in the cell and spent two nights in Fox Hill prison.
“Now all of a sudden now you are just going to give them a grant?
“I feel like their records need to be quashed. At the end of the day you give them a grant, let’s say at the end of the day they want to travel to the US to buy some utensils or to buy some things to advance their business, it’s going to show up on any police record that they were arrested and charged and had to pay a fine. If they were to apply for a visa how would they get their visa with a police record like that?
“What if they want to go to college abroad? How does that work with a record?”
On Monday, the Prime Minister called street vendors an important part of the economy.
“Accordingly, we will be offering a way for enterprising Bahamians to be able to sell their products on the streets of their respective islands, and to be able to do so in a safe and sustained manner,” he said. “The government will review the current licensing and regulatory procedures for street vendors. Our intention is to enable street vendors to be able to sell their products in safe and secure venues.”
He said standards would be put in place to ensure they could meet health code requirements and not pose any health risk related to COVID-19 or otherwise.
The vendors will be trained in these standards as a requirement of their license, Dr Minnis said.