By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The hotel union’s president yesterday said he was “hoping and praying” that the COVID-19 related closure of Atlantis and other major Bahamian resorts does not extend beyond May 15.
Darrin Woods, the Bahamas Hotel, Catering and Allied Workers (BHCAWU) chief, told Tribune Business that yesterday’s near two-month closure of the flagship Paradise Island destination resort was little surprise given the total absence of any guests.
Atlantis’ decision to temporarily close from yesterday until May 15 brings it into line with other major hotels such as Sandals, which previously announced the same date as when it would seek to open up its Royal Bahamian and Emerald Bay (Exuma) properties. The announcement also coincided with Baha Mar’s shutdown, which also occurred yesterday.
The move also means that the duration for which Atlantis employees have been temporarily laid-off has increased from an initial four weeks to eight weeks. Audrey Oswell, the resort’s president and managing director, promised affected staff in a note that the property was “working on a plan” to provide financial assistance although she provided no details.
“We have been navigating the current situation minute-by-minute, day -by-day, adjusting as we learn more,” she added in a statement. “One thing remains constant: Nothing matters more than the health, safety and well-being of our team members, guests and communities. We must confront the reality that togetherness may be a threat to the health and safety of our community and loved ones at this time.”
In her note to staff confirming the closure until May 15, which has been seen by Tribune Business, Ms Oswell said: “After the recent horror of Hurricane Dorian none of us could have imagined the magnitude of this COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting fall-out just waiting around the corner.
“And now here it is. Yet, even during these trying times, we know in our hearts that this, too, shall pass. Our people have, and always will be, our number one priority. It is your future job security and well-being that we are focused on when making the difficult decisions we are focused on when making the difficult decisions we are faced with today.”
Backing the action taken by the government to control COVID-19’s spread in The Bahamas, she added: “It is in that vein that we have made the socially responsible decision of a temporary closure of the resort.
“Later today we will announce the temporary closure of Atlantis effective this [yesterday] afternoon at 3pm through Friday, May 15, at which time we will assess the situation and make a determination on the re-opening of the resort.
“Earlier this month, many of you were furloughed for four weeks. Now, given the closure of the resort the furlough will be longer. Recognising the burden this places on everyone, we are working on a plan to assist you during this difficult time.”
Atlantis was not the only tourism heavyweight to announce an extension to its COVID-19 closure. For The Bahamas will not see Royal Caribbean’s cruise ships for another month, the company having extended its closure until May 12.
The British Colonial Hilton, meanwhile, remained open. Pablo Casal, its general manager, in an e-mail told Tribune Business yesterday: “We are still open as of right now and we continue to monitor the events and following the Government’s recommendations.”
Mr Woods yesterday agreed that Atlantis’s move was not unexpected, and was in line with the action taken by other major Bahamian resorts to drastically slash costs to ensure their own survival as revenue streams completely dried up.
“They’re just trying to buy some time, and hopefully this thing blows over and things start up,” he told Tribune Business. “It’s no real surprise. The only thing that we’re really hoping and praying is it [the closure] doesn’t extend any further for all the hotels, and something begins to happen industry-wide.”
Yet with COVID-19 infections and deaths still increasing across The Bahamas’ major source markets of the US, Canada and Europe, it appears likely that Bahamian resort closures - and the complete shutdown of the nation’s largest industry and employer - may well extend beyond May 15 and further into the summer.
Mr Woods yesterday reiterated his plea for both union members, and hotel workers in general, to “be patient” and promised that he and his executive were in discussions with both the Government and industry employers to provide financial assistance to those temporarily laid-off.
Warning that the hotel union will “have to do something by any means necessary” if the $10m unemployment benefit for those temporarily laid-off does not kick-in “within a week or so”, the hotel union chief repeated his call for a “tripartite approach” involving both resort industry and the Government also “bring their stake to it”.
He added that financial assistance should be structured in the anticipation that the temporary resort lay-offs could last for months, with assistance from the union and employers kicking-in via a staggered approach once the 13-week unemployment benefit was exhausted.
Acknowledging that tourists were likely to have a “phobia” about travelling once the COVID-19 pandemic was over, Mr Woods said he was vital that The Bahamas keep its infection numbers so low if it was to exploit its proximity to the US in any post-crisis recovery.
“It’ll be good if we can maintain it where it is,” he told Tribune Business of the five recorded cases to-date. “It is critical. It is critical. That will be part of our marketing campaign once this is over: That The Bahamas is open and free.
“If we have no new cases, and can eliminate or eradicate those we have, it bodes well for all of us. We need to get citizens to understand that while it is tough we will all benefit from it in the long run. We all need to do our part. We had a slogan back in the day that ‘Tourism is everyone’s business’, and that’s shouting louder than ever. Even in the silence you can hear it.
“We’ve got to be able to jump start our economy and the industry. Once that gets started again we will be the benefactors.”