By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A Bahamian liquor distributor yesterday accused its rivals of “pressuring” the government to perform a u-turn on its free home delivery service in less than 24 hours.
Gary Sands, Jimmy’s Wines and Spirits general manager, told Tribune Business it was “a huge disappointment” that the government yesterday afternoon revoked the approval it had given just the day before to a launch a brand new service amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The company, which is the retail arm of the Freeport-based Bahamian Brewery and Beverage Company, had sought to overcome New Providence’s lockdown through a home delivery service that would fulfill orders for a minimum $200 worth of alcohol ordered by phone, What’s App or e-mail.
Social media advertising was launched, with at least one promotional flyer obtained by Tribune Business touting a 9am to 4pm service with Busch Light bottles offered at a special price of $35 per case. However, the plans were halted almost as quickly as they were hatched, with Mr Sands alleging that a high-ranking civil servant informed him that competitors lobbies for the approval to be revoked.
That could not be confirmed before press time last night, but Mr Sands the home delivery shutdown had also deprived Jimmy’s and its brewery affiliate of the chance to earn precious revenue that would have helped to pay its 150 staff amid the COVID-19 national lockdown and its continued recovery from millions of dollars worth of damage inflicted by Hurricane Dorian.
“It’s kind of expected when there’s uncertainty going on and a lot of pressure from external competitors. It is what it is,” he told Tribune Business of the approval revocation. “We got one approval for this on March 23 when they were doing the 9pm to 5am curfew, and a few days later they went to 24 hours.
“So we applied again for permission, and got it last night [Wednesday]. We started doing deliveries, but around 2pm this [yesterday] afternoon they sent us a letter revoking the approval.”
Voicing his frustration at the government’s abrupt u-turn, Mr Sands added: “You get it this day, and don’t get it the next day. I feel there was a lot of pressure to the government through our competitors. That’s what he, the permanent secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office, said.” He did not name the “competitors” involved.
David Davis, the permanent secretary in question, could not be reached for comment before press deadline last night. However, additions to the list of businesses to be treated as “essential services”, and exempt from the nationwide lockdown, specifically excluded alcohol when released on Wednesday night.
It stipulated that “groceries and non-alcoholic beverages” could be operated as a mobile delivery service between 9am to 5pm provided they adhered to social distancing protocols. But Jimmy’s Wines and Spirits, following the approval termination, said in a note to customers last night: “With stores closed, we did our best to get our customers products they love most.
“After receiving an exemption letter from the Office of the Prime Minister on March 25, 2020, granting permission to operate within strict guidelines, it was unfortunately revoked 24 hours later.”
The liquor retailer added: “Our free home delivery service has ceased, and we will no longer be taking orders or delivering. We are, and always have been, in complete co-operation with the law. Our stores have remained closed since March 20, and we will not be fulfilling delivery orders no matter when you placed them.”
Anthony Ferguson, the Police Commissioner, said officers were sent to Jimmy’s Wines and Spirits yesterday to shut the home delivery service down. He argued that it would also have breached the company’s liquor licence, as this did not permit it to sell alcohol anywhere off its premises.
Mr Sands made no mention of this, but said the Government’s u-turn will have a “huge” impact for Jimmy’s Wines and Spirits. He added: “This was a big undertaking in getting the proper team we needed to do this and thinking about their safety.
“This is a service we don’t normally offer, and to undertake this project was not as easy as one thinks it would be. It takes a lot behind the scenes to make this type of thing happen. It’s a huge disappointment. It’s a huge impact on us in terms of revenues.
“We still have about 150 persons we want to pay, and by not having one single dollar coming through for revenue puts us in a huge financial situation like other liquor distributors. It’s huge. We’re dead in the water. Big time,” Mr Sands continued.
“We just had Dorian in Freeport, so we were right in the middle of rebuilding the Brewery and have no product to sell in terms of local brands, and then this [COVID-19] happens to us.”
Mr Sands bemoaned the fact that the Government had not given Bahamians time to stock up on their home supplies of beer, wine and spirits prior to enforcing the nationwide lockdown, arguing that these items were “essential” to making time at home a little more bearable for many.
“We understand the seriousness of the situation. It’s uncharted waters for everyone, but to do things in a safe manner and give people safe access to beer, wines and spirits is essential,” he argued. “You can’t just stop it overnight and be OK with that.
“It’s not food and water, is not life and death, but helps persons you have trapped in their homes for 24 hours, which is necessary given what is going on around the world.” Mr Sands added that the lockdown had resulted in Jimmy’s Wines and Spirits having “a lot of inventory tied up that we are unable to move”.
Tribune Business yesterday obtained evidence of inconsistencies in how the Government is treating other sectors that have sought to be categorised as “essential services”, especially the money transmission services providers.
While Sun Cash, the Western Union franchise holder, sent out e-mail advertising confirming all its locations were open, one of its rivals confirmed they and the wider sector were still seeking the Government’s permission to do the same.
A Sun Cash spokesman confirmed the Government had given it permission to open on Wednesday afternoon after making the case that it was an “essential” service on many Family Islands when it came to providing residents with access to their money and conducting financial transactions.
“Once we got the decision from the Government we immediately opened up and got all our systems at Sun Cash and Western Union back online,” the spokesman said. “We’re in places like Inagua, Crooked Island, Black Point, and people are screaming for their money. The banks were never there, and we’re the only money transmission business in those areas.
“We do what the banks never did, which is serve all the islands of The Bahamas. Through our platform, you can send money to anyone, anywhere in the country using a mobile phone. We had a lot of pent-up demand when we opened and it has been really extraordinary. People need access to their money. That’s really the long and short of it.”
The Sun Cash spokesman added: “The same way you or I, 9am to 5pm, can walk to an automated teller machine (ATM) or walk to the bank in Nassau and Freeport, and get our money, they have the same exact needs on these islands. We see our network as providing the electronic infrastructure for them to have their needs taken care of.
“That’s our mandate as a financial institution, always has and always will be, to provide service. Getting money to people electronically is the issue for us.”
However, Harvey Morris, Omni Financial Services chief executive, and a Sun Cash competitor, said he was still “fighting” for money transmission businesses to be treated as “essential” services and allowed to open up during the lockdown.
“We’ve requested it,” he added, confirming that his locations were closed and he was unaware of Sun Cash’s approval to open. “It’s something we’ve been having discussions with the Central Bank on. We’ve been going over this with them, and are of the opinion we should be exempt.”
A draft Ministry of Finance document seen by Tribune Business, which listed 46 industries and companies seeking to be categorised as “essential”, appeared to agree that money transmission businesses - like the banks and credit unions - should be treated as such, and allowed to open standalone sites and locations in other open businesses such as food stores between 9am to 5pm.
That has yet to happen. Meanwhile, F.Y.P and Builders Mall, in a message to customers yesterday that was seen by Tribune Business, also said it had been given permission to open for delivery and pick up orders just days after the construction industry and hardware/home improvements retailers had been told to shut down.
“We are open,” it said. “FY.P. has been granted approval by the Royal Bahamian Police Force COVID-19 Task Force to operate. For the health and safety for everyone, we will be doing delivery and pick-up order only.
“We welcome your phone calls, What’s Apps and e-mails. We will be operating from noon until 5pm today and 9am to 5pm moving forward. Please note that customers will not be permitted into the store to minimise interactions and maintain social distancing. We ask that all customers stay in their vehicle for all pick up orders.
“We are following all Coronavirus (COVID-19) guidelines for a retail store operation as guided by the Bahamian Government in their initiatives to halt the fast spreading coronavirus (COVID-19).”