By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Abaco was yesterday “holding its breath” over COVID-19’s arrival, with the island’s Chamber of Commerce president warning: “The last thing we need right now is a lockdown.”
Ken Hutton told Tribune Business that any new shutdown to halt the virus’ spread would have “far more serious repercussions” for Abaco and Grand Bahama given that both islands were still struggling to repair Dorian’s $2.5bn physical damage with the peak of another hurricane season just weeks away.
His concerns were echoed by Roscoe Thompson, the Marsh Harbour/Spring City Council’s head, who said the island would be “in a world of trouble” if the Minnis administration imposes restrictive measures that halt or impede reconstruction work.
He conceded, though, that COVID-19’s arrival meant Abaco is now facing “a double edged sword” between imposing restrictions to save lives and avoiding any further delay to property repairs that must be completed before peak hurricane season.
Both men spoke hours before four more COVID-19 cases were confirmed on Abaco’s surrounding cays, adding to the two detected the day before. The Ministry of Health said three infected persons were found on Moore’s Island and another on Great Guana Cay.
No further details were provided, but the the Baker’s Bay Golf & Ocean Club confirmed that the first two cases uncovered on Wednesday were connected to its project. One, an employee of Bahamian contractor, FES, was said to have a history of travel between Abaco and Grand Bahama, the latter being the island that has seen a huge spike in COVID-19 cases since the July 1 border re-opening.
The second was one of the 135 Mexicans brought in to work on Baker’s Bay’s $400m post-Dorian restoration. The latest Abaco-related cases, bringing the total number to six, were unveiled ahead of yesterday’s emergency Cabinet meeting to discuss the growing COVID-19 health crisis, which was still being held as Tribune Business went to press.
“We’re very concerned. Right now everybody is holding their breath hoping these are isolated cases,” Mr Hutton told Tribune Business. “The last thing Abaco needs right now is a shutdown. A lockdown of any kind would be really, really detrimental to our progress. We’re definitely under the gun so are holding our breath that these [cases] are isolated incidents.”
With Tropical Gonzalo gaining strength as it approaches the southern Caribbean, albeit presently forecast to track away from The Bahamas, Mr Hutton said he “didn’t even want to consider” the prospect of lockdown restrictions that may disrupt Abaco’s recovery at a vital moment.
“I think the setback would be far more detrimental than just the timeframe,” he added. “I think it would set us back multiples of the timeframe. It’s not just stopping work; everything has to be demobilised and remobilised.
“It’s pretty scary. The repercussions of a shutdown here are far more serious than you would have elsewhere, with the exception of Grand Bahama, which is in a very serious situation. This is happening right just as we were starting to see some daylight in terms of reconstruction. Having everything shut down would be bad.”
Mr Hutton said Abaco residents including himself were also questioning whether the island had the necessary medical facilities, and resources and professionals, to cope with a major COVID-19 outbreak. Confirming that the Marsh Harbour clinic was open and receiving patients, he added: “If there was a rush of COVID-19, that’s not something I want to contemplate right now.”
The Abaco Chamber chief confirmed that the closure of The Bahamas’ borders to all commercial air and sea transport from the US with effect from Wednesday would have little impact on the island as traffic from that source to-date had been minimal.
He added, though, that Abaco second homeowners who were private pilots are still “coming in every day. That’s fine because they are going through the protocols before they arrive; the testing that has to be done. I’m confident that’s being done”.
Mr Hutton suggested that COVID-19 had been brought to Abaco from Freeport, and said: “I’m not blaming Freeport; that’s just the way it is.... But we are suffering the consequences. I feel for Grand Bahama, I really do. Again, I have my fingers crossed hoping these are isolated incidents here.
“What I saw today was people doubling down on the protocols. Where there might have been a bit of laxity, compliance has been restored. No one wants to take a chance with a lockdown. There is still so much work to be done here and time is not our friend right now.”
Mr Thompson, meanwhile, said he believed the Government was likely to implement COVID-19-related restrictions of some sort upon Abaco in the coming days. “I can’t guarantee that, but they can’t allow this to get out of hand over here,” he added.
“Do I think it’s going to affect what’s going on in the reconstruction? I hope not. But to contain it they have to put more limitations and restrictions in place if more cases break out over here. I guess it’s a double-edged sword.”
The Marsh Harbour/Spring City Council chief said his major concern was the lack of information coming from central government about how it was dealing with COVID-19’s emergence on Great Guana Cay.
Adding that efforts to contact Abaco-based health officials and the island administrator had proven fruitless, Mr Thompson said the only information he had obtained was from a Facebook posting by James Albury, the central and south Abaco MP, who said a health team was being sent to Great Guana Cay to test all residents and Baker’s Bay workers.
He voiced concern, though, that while Baker’s Bay’s Mexican workers were all residing in a barge moored off the cay, several hundred Bahamians working on the project were still being allowed to commute daily between Great Guana Cay and Marsh Harbour via ferry.
“When those cases were announced there should be no more workers going to Great Guana Cay until the Government gets a grip on it,” Mr Thompson said. “That’s still being allowed to happen.”
Baker’s Bay, in a statement on the two cases connected to its project, said it had “already commenced a robust COVID-19 response, including but not limited to masking, physical distancing, a COVID-19-oriented cleaning protocol, contact tracing, self-quarantining and testing, all of which are being guided by the Ministry of Health protocols and professionals, as well as private medical professionals in The Bahamas”. It is unclear if yesterday’s Great Guana Cay case is also linked to the development.
“I believe it’s just a matter of time before restrictions get tightened in Abaco. It’s scary,” Mr Thompson told Tribune Business. “That would affect construction employment, and that’s one of my biggest concerns. We don’t have enough people to do construction, and have people from Freeport and Nassau coming to help the rebuilding.
“That would affect us in a big way. It would be a real big blow to the rebuilding. We don’t want to put the community in panic, but police and the Defence Force need to be at both Bahamas Ferries terminals when the ferry comes in all the way down to the crossing to make sure people have masks. There’s really no order.
“My concern is you cannot stop the people rebuilding in the middle of hurricane season. If they do tighten these restrictions Abaco will be in a world of hurt because roofs and buildings have not been repaired,” Mr Thompson added. “If a hurricane comes in three weeks.....
“It’s double-edged sword. Such tough restrictions would affect us but I can understand why they would do it to contain the spread of COVID-19. It would end up hurting what little economy we have right now.”
Mr Thompson said the only businesses operating in the Marsh Harbour area presently were grocery stores such as Maxwell’s; hardware stores such as Premier Importers and Abaco Hardware; liquor stores and gas stations.