By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The government was yesterday warned that any "knee jerk reaction" to place Grand Bahama back into total lockdown over the recent COVID-19 surge will be "devastating" for the island's economy.
Carey Leonard, the former Grand Bahama Port Authority (GBPA) in-house attorney, told Tribune Business that a return to the island-wide closure that lasted from mid-March to May "isn't on" because many businesses "barely survived" that event.
Acknowledging that many in the private sector were becoming increasingly fearful that the government may revert to such action, after Grand Bahama suffered eight new COVID-19 cases in a week, Mr Leonard said a complete lockdown must be avoided at all costs given the "one-two punch" the island and many companies had suffered due to a combination of pandemic and Hurricane Dorian.
The Callenders & Co attorney again questioned the government's failure to ramp up COVID-19 testing, arguing that this was critical to identifying potential "hot spots" and limiting the virus' spread through selective lockdowns of hard-hit areas.
Asserting that The Bahamas is now in the world's "bottom third" when it comes to testing as a proportion of the population, he argued that the failure to increase such activities could not be driven by lack of money when the Government had just incurred $10.5m worth of costs to prop-up Bahamasair during the lockdown.
Taking the $240 price being charged by Doctors Hospital and Lucayan Medical for a COVID-19 PCR test, Mr Leonard suggested that a $20m investment based on this rate would provide enough tests for more than 80,000 citizens and residents.
He also questioned why The Bahamas had decided to open its borders to the US, even though it accounts for over 80 percent of tourists, given that it is currently the world leader for COVID-19 infections and deaths.
Mr Leonard suggested that this nation should have looked to Canada and Europe, both with lower COVID-19 cases, and used its own relatively virus-free status to negotiate arrangements overcoming restrictions and quarantines for their nationals upon returning from The Bahamas.
"We wonder if we're going to get a COVID-19 lockdown again soon," he told Tribune Business. "I'm extremely concerned, and concerned because it will affect businesses again. There seems to be a lack of understanding that when we shut business down, there's a complete lack of revenue.
"It would be devastating. A number of businesses have barely survived the last lockdown. A number of restaurants were beginning to hope they can open next weeks. They've gone to great lengths to make sure everything is separate, and if they go back into lockdown it will mean they have had no business since March.
"They will not be doing curb side. It doesn't make any sense. They've got to find a way to keep them open and, at the same time, do adequate enforcement and testing."
The Government has form for reimposing island-wide lockdowns to counter the spread of COVID-19, as it did when there was a surge of cases in Bimini. The sudden spike in Grand Bahama cases also highlights the dilemma The Bahamas faces, in opening up the economy and its borders, and allowing Bahamians and tourists to travel freely, given the health risks it poses.
Arguing that the economic price of another Grand Bahama lockdown is to steep to pay, Mr Leonard said: "I definitely believe we should avoid it. We just need to do a better enforcing the rules and regulations.
"It would be disastrous for the economy, and you'll find more businesses going out of business. We've had a number of cases, but we've also had Dorian, and we'd finally got the place running again before we had to shut down for COVID-19.
"We're trying to recover from the most major and devastating hit that the islands has ever seen. Businesses have taken a massive hit from that, and we cannot afford to keep shutting down. It just isn' on," he continued.
"It's not just the businesses themselves but the employees. They can get some assistance from the Government maybe, but the other point is they need to be earning income to meet their obligations to family, mortgage and everything else.
"I don't see how we can afford it [an island-wide lockdown] quite frankly. Maybe if we had not been hit by Dorian, but we've had a one-two punch already. The cash in the economy just isn't there. Hopefully we can come up with a way to avoid drastic action."
Mr Leonard said all Grand Bahama businesses he has visited have taken their responsibilities to enforce COVID-19 protocols seriously, requiring the wearing of masks, social distancing and the sanitising of customer hands at the door.
He reiterated his belief that increased testing was the answer to the latest spike in COVID-19 cases, suggesting that The Bahamas only did so when a person appeared to be showing symptoms consistent with COVID-19.
"I just do not understand why we are not testing, testing, testing. Everywhere else in the world is," Mr Leonard told Tribune Business. "It cannot be the cost. We've done 2,500 tests, and even Barbados - which has 100,000 people less than us - has far outstripped us on testing/
"Testing is critical because we need to keep everything open as much as possible, find the hot spots and shut those areas and businesses down only. It cannot be because of financing. We are perfectly happy to spend $10.5m on Bahamasair. Are you telling me that's worth more than the lives of 380,000-390,000 people?"
The Callenders & Co attorney said Barbados, in contrast to The Bahamas, had tested around 9,800 persons for COVID-19. This amounted to 3.1 percent of its population, compared to just the 0.6 percent tested in The Bahamas. Mr Leonard said some 40 percent of those in the Cayman Islands have been tested for the virus, along with 2.4 percent in Turks & Caicos and 22.8 percent in Bermuda.