By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Abaco's Chamber of Commerce president yesterday said the island's post-Dorian recovery has been plunged "back to ground zero" by the COVID-19 crisis, adding: "We're on our own again."
Ken Hutton told Tribune Business that the emergency nationwide lockdown announced by the Government to curb the pandemic's spread had worsened Abaco's existing labour shortages by provoking workers to return home.
With the world and Nassau's attention firmly focused on combating the virus, Mr Hutton voiced fears that international assistance would dry up - especially since all non-governmental (NGO) and relief agencies had now departed Abaco in response to the pandemic.
He suggested that the island is being forced to "take a back seat, if not being pushed out of the car altogether" by COVID-19, but is likely to have been satisfied by the Prime Minister's decision last night to effectively close The Bahamas' borders to inbound and outbound passenger traffic.
Prior to Dr Hubert Minnis' national address, Mr Hutton revealed he and other Abaco residents had become extremely fearful of the potential health hazard posed by the multiple private planes flying into the island.
Disclosing that there were minimal to no health checks on the passengers, he said the Abaco Chamber had urged that the island be closed to international flights until the COVID-19 emergency was over - an action that the Prime Minister took last night.
Warning that permitting continued private aviation flights "defeats the purpose" of the Government's nationwide curfew and business lockdown, Mr Hutton said it was effectively "leaving the front door open" to new coronavirus infection at the same time as Bahamians were being urged to stay at home.
And, with Abaco having "nowhere near the healthcare capacity you have in Nassau," he argued it represented a "very dangerous situation" for the Dorian-ravaged island should it suffer a COVID-19 outbreak.
"Absolutely. We're going through it now," Mr Hutton replied, when asked by Tribune Business whether the pandemic was disrupting Abaco's post-Dorian rebuilding. "We're actually losing our labour force as workers that came from other islands are returning to their homes during the shutdown. There's businesses that are struggling to find manpower as it is, and mine's one of them.
"It's obviously stalling recovery efforts. I think it's just another part of what's happening with this virus. It can't continue the way it was before. People, as much as they can, are staying in their homes - whatever's left of their homes - or those that can have gone to other islands.
"All the NGOs have left, all the aid groups have left. We've very much back to ground zero in some cases. We're very much on our own again. Very much so."
Hurricane Dorian was estimated to have inflicted $3.438bn in physical damage, economic/revenue losses and “additional costs” on the Bahamian economy when it ravaged Abaco and Grand Bahama in early September 2019.
Abaco suffered the brunt of this multi-billion dollar hit, with 89 percent of the total $1.48bn damage to the nation's housing stock incurred by residential and commercial properties on the island alone.
Now, with international and Bahamian government attention focused elsewhere, Mr Hutton said the post-Dorian recovery was likely to stall or falter as the world ramped up efforts to control COVID-19's spread.
"In terms of getting international relief here, there's obviously something that's more urgent in other parts of the world right now," the Abaco Chamber chief told Tribune Business. "We're definitely taking a back seat, if not being pushed out of the car altogether, and that's really going to affect our ability to come back.
"It's certainly not been the best seven-month period, or even 12-month period, we've had. I hate to say it couldn't get much worse. You have the old saying: 'When you reach the bottom, stop digging', but it appears someone's ready to start blasting.
"We're just focused on making it through the day, rebuilding what we can rebuild with what we have got, and restoring Abaco. We're focusing on Abaco. The world will do what it''s got to do."
Mr Hutton said one positive for Abaco was that its supply chain had experienced no COVID-19 related disruption, with cargo ships bringing food, construction materials and other essential supplies to the island on a frequent basis.
But, prior to the Prime Minister's decision to close The Bahamas' borders last night, Mr Hutton said the volume of incoming private aircraft - combined with the lack of health checks - represented a risk Abaconians did not want to tolerate.
"We still have a lot of private flights coming in from the US all the time unchecked," he told Tribune Business. "There's no temperature taken. The passengers are asked a few questions and allowed through, going off to Hope Town, Elbow Cay and wherever they go. There was a gentleman that came here from Utah last week."
Mr Hutton said many were likely second homeowners come to view Dorian-related damage to their properties, or the rebuilding efforts, while some may have been seeking refuge from the pandemic currently ravaging their home countries.
"Wearing my Chamber hat I called Civil Aviation and said: 'This has to stop'," he added. "If you're going to shut the country down and tell everybody to stay at home, you cannot let all these other people come in. We don't know what they're bringing with them. It defeats the purpose. Just close Abaco to international flights until this is over.
"It's not just me. The whole community is very concerned about this. We're telling everyone to stay in their bedrooms but are leaving the front door wide open."
Mr Hutton said Civil Aviation had been responsive to his arguments, and the Prime Minister acted on them last night. The second COVID-19 emergency order also closed The Bahamas' borders to pleasure yachts and boats, which have been seen as another potential source of COVID-19, although cargo shipments will not be impacted.
The Abaco Chamber president added that the private aviation threat was aggravated by the fact that the island's Dorian-ravaged healthcare infrastructure, which has lost doctors, nurses and physical clinics, would simply be unable to cope with a COVID-19 pandemic.
"The thing is: Nassau does what it does. The bigger issue is we don't have the kind of healthcare facilities that you have in Nassau," Mr Hutton said. "We don't have the doctors, we don't have the facilities to deal with this kind of stuff.
"I'm sure arrangements have been made, but we have nowhere near the capacities you have in Nassau. If this thing goes south it's going to be a very dangerous situation here."
After all it experienced with Hurricane Dorian, Mr Hutton said Abaco was "likely more prepared than anywhere else" in The Bahamas to cope with the COVID crisis. "There's no panic buying, no one's freaking out," he added. "Everyone's just doing what they have to to get through this like they have been doing for seven months."