By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Exuma’s Chamber of Commerce president yesterday called for Nassauvians to be banned from travelling to the Family Islands for Emancipation Day if COVID-19 cases continue to spike in the capital.
Pedro Rolle, telling Tribune Business that “many people will kill me for saying this”, argued that the health risks presented by allowing Nassau residents to travel to Exuma and elsewhere for the August 3 holiday far outweighed the potential economic benefits.
He also said he was “baffled”, and fails “to understand the logic”, behind the government’s decision to continue permitting US tourists to visit The Bahamas by private boat, private plane and aviation charter given that many will come from the COVID-19 “hot spot” that is Florida.
The “Sunshine State” recorded some 10,200 new COVID-19 cases yesterday, and Mr Rolle said the continuing rapid spread of the virus in that key source market should have spurred the government to ban all private - as well as commercial - air and sea transportation from the US on Wednesday this week.
And, warning that Exuma and the rest of The Bahamas face “a tough six months” ahead, Mr Rolle said his island was likely to feel the COVID-19 fall-out more than other Family Islands due to this week’s closure of its Sandals Emerald Bay “anchor project” - something he described as “a devastating blow”.
Acknowledging that Exuma had been boosted by visiting Nassau residents since the initial COVID-19 lockdown ended, and domestic travel resumed in early June, the Chamber chief said the recent explosion in COVID-19 cases on New Providence, Grand Bahama and other islands had made it too risky for this to continue over the upcoming Emancipation Day weekend.
“We kind of became one of the destinations of choice for people in Nassau. We appreciate the income, but if it were up to me - and a lot of people will kill me for saying this - if this thing continues to spike, and you have had all the folks coming over from Freeport to Nassau, I believe that in an attempt to contain this virus over the holiday weekend persons will have to stay in place recognising where we are,” Mr Rolle told Tribune Business.
“If it [COVID-19] explodes in Nassau between now and then, I’m afraid to have people from Nassau come here and to Eleuthera or any of the other islands. It would put this island at risk, and we’re not in a position to take care of persons that may become infected. I don’t think we’re equipped medically to deal with a large number of persons who may be infected.
“I’m talking from my selfish Family Island perspective and that of the islands. It’s a sacrifice but, in the end, I think it may make sense. We ought to be extremely careful. We’ve done very well, and that’s a good thing, but when you weigh the costs and the benefits I think a little sacrifice in the long run will be best for us.”
Mr Rolle spoke before the Minnis administration’s Cabinet emergency meeting last night to discuss the growing COVID-19 crisis, following a day in which 55 new cases - 39 of which were from Grand Bahama - were detected. A further five were found in New Providence, but Grand Bahama has now seen more cases than the capital since the pandemic’s start in mid-March.
However, the Exuma Chamber chief questioned why the Government was continuing to expose The Bahamas to COVID-19 ‘hot spots’ by keeping the country’s borders open to private boaters, private aviation and charter flights from the US.
“That’s what we need to monitor very closely,” he told Tribune Business. “I am still baffled by that decision to be honest with you. I’m not sure I understand the logic behind it, but it is what it is. We should be very wary about having tourists from certain area coming to The Bahamas, and not allow that to happen. That’s the concern I have with the boaters.”
The Prime Minister, addressing the House of Assembly, yesterday said the Government would have been accused of breaching the country’s constitution and Bahamians’ civil liberties, resulting in major public push back and even lawsuits, had it blocked Bahamians from travelling to Florida - and only allowed tourists in - once the borders re-opened on July 1.
Dr Hubert Minnis argued that this was also discriminatory, but Mr Rolle said blocking locals and residents from travelling to Florida, in particular, was exactly what the Government should have done in hindsight given that this was the suspected cause behind much of the COVID-19 infection surge.
“People tend to be selfish and don’t see the bigger picture,” he argued. “I support the position that we ought not to have been going to Miami other than for emergencies such as medical. It’s silly for us to be going to Miami based on what we’re hearing unless there’s dire or compelling circumstances.
“When we opened, and saw things spiking in Miami, we should have made the decision that Bahamians can’t go to Miami. In this environment it was not just at your own risk, but when you’re coming back you place everyone else at risk.”
Sandals Emerald Bay, Exuma’s largest resort, closed again on Wednesday after commercial air transport links with the US severed. Mr Rolle said this represented not just an economic but also a psychological hit for the island’s residents and other businesses.
“I think it’s a devastating blow on two fronts,” he explained. “It’s devastating because of the actual financial impact it has on those people who had begun to work and earn some income again and, even beyond that, there’s the psychological impact.
“Sandals gives the local economy a sense of hope and measures, in a real sense, how we’re doing. When you take that away it’s a big loss of impetus. There’s the multiplier effect that impacts the small businesses relying on Sandals, and there’s a depressing impact on people’s emotions. People are beginning to wonder if they’re going to make it, and what the rest of the year will look like, because Sandals has shut down.”
Suggesting that other Exuma-based resorts may also close for some time, Mr Rolle added: “I’m not as optimistic. I’m uncertain due to the closure of Sandals and the other businesses on the island. I think it’s going to be very tough running really for the rest of the year.
“I don’t see any economic recovery, a huge number of people are unemployed and that’s going to happen in Exuma as well as other islands. Islands without an anchor project are not going to feel it as much. We’re going to feel it in a real way. Exuma is in for a tough six months.”