By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Sandals Emerald Bay's closure will have "a devastating impact" on an Exuma economy that has "more to lose" from the COVID-19 pandemic than other islands, Tribune Business was told yesterday.
Pedro Rolle, Exuma's Chamber of Commerce president, described the island as being "eerily quiet" and akin to "Christmas without the festivities" after its major employer confirmed it was closing for six weeks from month's end due to the global pandemic.
Estimating that Sandals was responsible for the direct and indirect employment of at least 600 persons, Mr Rolle urged Nassau not to forget the contribution made by Family Islands that were primarily "small business economies" which will need significant financial assistance to ride-out the coming economic storm.
"I don't know what the dollar figure is going to be, but it's going to have a serious impact on the local economy directly and indirectly. It impacts everybody," he added of Sandals Emerald Bay's closure from March 30 until May 15. "I had a discussion with them last weekend, and the unknown was when they would have to close and for how long.
"A six-week period of time initially is still a long period of time for people to not be working. It's a sad state, but it's all around. The cancellations have started to come in. I don't know what the mood is in Nassau but it's like it's Christmas Day. You drive on the streets and there's not a lot going on. It's eerily quiet. It's Christmas Day without the festivities.
"This is the time when people make most of their money for the year, and you add to that the cancellation of the Family Island Regatta and it's going to be a rough period; a rough year."
Mr Rolle added that economic activity related to Exuma's previously buoyant second home market was also grinding to a halt as the worldwide travel industry shutdown amid border closures, travel bans and flight cancellations due to the ongoing pandemic. The Bahamas announced its own measures last night.
"This situation impacts the entire economy," the Chamber of Commerce president added. "I think we have more to lose than some of the other island economies because we were benefiting substantially more from what is happening in the aftermath of the hurricane.
"A lot of projects people were building for and trying to get funding for, those things are going to be put on hold. The question is: Will it impact them long-term? Will they be cancelled? You only have funding for so many things, and if you are waiting for income for a project and it doesn't come through, will that cause the cancellation of the project?"
Mr Rolle said Exuma residents typically have "very little wiggle room" financially when it comes to funding home construction or improvement projects, given relatively low savings levels, and failing to proceed would undermine consumer and economic confidence.
"I think it's going to have a devastating impact in the short run on what happens locally in the near future. That's the reality," he added of the pandemic's effect. "The longer this thing goes on, the worse it gets.
"Exuma's economy is overwhelmingly a small business economy. We have small contractors and sub-contractors doing work Sandals and small hotels. One month out of business is long enough and significant enough to put some of those out of business."
Mr Rolle voiced optimism that the resilient nature of Family Island residents would carry them through the COVID-19 fall-out, but warned that without financial assistance and support from the Government many small businesses will "not survive".
"We are a resilient people," he added. "Family Islanders tend to be resilient. Let's hope it does not put a dampener on them, and make them throw their hands in the air and say: 'I quit'. Success is based on their ability to go to work every day. They need to have an opportunity to work.
"Everything tends to be on Nassau. I accept that. But the Bahamian economy needs places like Exuma and the Abacos to make it complete, so with all the consideration given to small businesses provision has to be made for small Family Island economies as well.