By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamian economy "could be wiped out" if business owners and employees fail to take compliance and enforcement of COVID-19 health protocols seriously, a top private sector executive warned yesterday.
Jeffrey Beckles, the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers Confederation's (BCCEC) chief executive, told Tribune Business that the "burden of responsibility" to safeguard this nation from further virus outbreaks had passed from individuals to the business community with the economy's re-opening.
Having lobbied the government extensively to re-open the economy, Mr Beckles said individual businesses have to see their role in enforcing mask wearing and social distancing among customers as part of "the bigger picture" in securing the economy and jobs against further threats from this pandemic.
The chamber chief, speaking after the prime minister unveiled a series of fines and punishments for companies that failed to properly implement and supervise the necessary COVID-19 protections, voiced optimism that the private sector "understands what's at stake".
Acknowledging that the private sector "will not regain in one or two weeks what has been lost in three months" as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown, Mr Beckles said there was little money in the domestic economy despite its re-opening. This, he added, exposed why it was "a must" that The Bahamas opens its tourism industry on July 1, adding: "We're not going to survive much longer without it."
Urging all businesses to play their part, with the economy's re-opening only as strong as its weakest link, the chamber chief said: "One of the positions the chamber has held from the very beginning of this COVOD-19 discussion was individual responsibility when we were trying to get the average Bahamian to appreciate their obligation to comply with the health protocols, healthcare changes, measures to keep us safe, social distancing and not going out in crowds.
"We kept insisting one of the best things we can do for our economy is comply. Now we've gone through COVID-19, and the transition has gone from individual responsibility to corporate responsibility where business owners must be seen as partners. They cannot be seen as anything else.
"When we lobbied the Government to re-open the economy, we did so in a spirit of partnership, and now we're re-open we must all understand what our role and responsibilities are. For businesses to see another day, their contribution to the bigger picture is to enforce the rules and compliance with the rules."
Mr Beckles continued: "There are two things we are trying to protect: Jobs and the economy. If we lose sight of this it's on us. The Government has got us open. The burden of responsibility lies on us as business owners in terms of managing employees and customers in our space to ensure we stay safe.
"It's a critical partnership and necessary partnership. Whether you are self-employed or a business owner of a substantive entity, the rules apply equally to you. The most important thing is that this is a partnership that has to be strengthened and where everyone has to realise they have an obligation. The downside of it is we could take it for granted and be wiped out. There's no economy to be had.
"Everyone understands what's at stake and we have to be prudent. We're not going to regain in one or two weeks what has been lost in three months. It's a careful pace that has to be maintained in concert with compliance."
Food store customer traffic has slowed significantly in recent weeks, based on observations of customer traffic and vehicles in the parking lot, indicating there is little money and reduced consumer spending/demand within the economy as persons focus on essential items. Many persons will likely have exhausted what little savings they had in March, April and May at the height of the COVID-19 lockdown, while the unemployment rate is thought to be around 40 percent.
Mr Beckles said this further highlighted the importance of the tourism industry's July 1 re-opening, given that the sector accounts for 50 percent of Bahamian economic output (gross domestic product), some 40-50 percent of jobs, and is the country's main foreign exchange earner.
"It's going to be rough going," he added. "It's one thing to get the domestic economy up and running, but when there's no money in the domestic economy it doesn't make a difference. It's [re-opening tourism] a must. We're not going to survive much longer. We're out there working with our partners and will see how it goes."
Mr Beckles spoke out after the Prime Minister yesterday warned that business owners will be held responsible for letting mask-less people enter their premises and/or failing to comply with social distancing guidelines.
Dr Hubert Minnis, in his contribution to the 2020-2021 Budget debate, said companies risk being fined up to $10,000 or up to 18 months in prison if they are found guilty of these breaches. A second violation will lead to another fine, and a third violation will lead to a temporary closure of the company until officials are satisfied that continued operations will not pose a health risk to the community.