By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Island Luck’s principal last night accused the prime minister of “targeting” the domestic gaming industry and its 3,500 employees after he ordered the sector to close once more.
Sebas Bastian, in a messaged response to Tribune Business inquiries, questioned why the industry had been “singled out” and “assailed by this government yet again” after it was the only one barred from offering delivery and curb side pick-up services and ordered to shut its doors in the latest Emergency Powers (COVID-19) Order.
Arguing that there was “no logic or rationale” to support the government’s decision, Mr Bastian said the move was clearly not based on any health-related concerns given that other “so-called ‘vices’” such as liquor stores had been allowed to re-open to consumers.
Urging the government to publicly disclose the reasons for permitting certain industries and companies to re-open, while requiring others to remain closed, the Island Luck chief said ordering domestic gaming to close just one week after it re-opened threatened to worsen the very 30 percent unemployment rate that the prime minister himself voiced concerns about yesterday.
The prime minister, in his national address, said the permission granted for businesses to provide delivery and curb-side pick-up services were “designed to relate strictly to retail business establishments which can operate efficiently without the need for direct person-to-person physical contact or face to face interactions”.
He added: “They were never intended to apply to the operations of gaming houses, and this is now made abundantly clear by the provisions of Part B of the Order. Those provisions specifically state that permission to engage in home delivery and curbside pick-up services do not apply to ‘a gaming house operator’.”
This means that web shops at Island Luck will once again have to close after re-opening last week at multiple locations where they were able to offer both drive through and curb-side services for patrons wishing to purchase numbers or deposit monies to their accounts.
Dr Hubert Minnis gave no explanation for the move, or why domestic gaming operators are the only industry singled out as not fit to provide services in this manner. It is possible, though, that the Government is becoming concerned that jobless Bahamians will spend their unemployment benefits on numbers as opposed to groceries and other essentials in the hope of securing ‘a big win’.
Mr Bastian, meanwhile, was not the only person voicing outrage at the Government’s action. Wayne Munroe QC, who represents several web shops but not Island Luck, last night branded the Prime Minister’s actions as “despotic” and said his firm was already beginning to explore whether it could be challenged legally on behalf of his clients.
Revealing that he “would really like to see the medical advice that informed the decision that web shops cannot offer curb side service”, and is likely to request this from the Government, Mr Munroe blasted: “It’s despotic. This is the reason you generally don’t give one man power like this.
“The question is whether or not it can be successfully challenged. That is something my firm and I are beginning to look at this [last] evening. Here you have a proposition that we will single one business out to say you cannot do business. It cannot be on the basis you say it’s a ‘sin’ because liquor’s a ‘sin’. I cannot see a rational reason for it.”
Mr Munroe added that the Government’s decision also could not be grounded in health because liquor and alcohol-related products are more harmful to a person’s physical health, and the ability of their immune system to withstand COVID-19, than gaming.
“I cannot understand it at all other than just petty mindedness,” he said. “The fact he feels he can do that should cause the rest of us to be very afraid. He’s coming for the gaming houses now; who’s he coming for next? It’s Orwellian. I can’t understand why the Bahamian people are taking this so calmly.”
Mr Bastian, meanwhile, blasted: “The Prime Minister’s most recent singling out of the gaming industry in his national address seems like yet another attempt to target a sector that employs more than 3,500 Bahamians.
“Why the Government is intent on keeping the sector closed and these Bahamians out of work is unclear. What has become apparent is that there is no logic or rationale to support the Government’s ad-hoc decision-making.”
Pointing out that domestic gaming had also closed down because of the COVD-19 public health crisis, Mr Bastian said Island Luck had committed to paying staff salaries and covering the “shortfall” difference between employee incomes and National Insurance Board (NIB) benefits.
With workers receiving their full pay for sox weeks, he added that the company “accelerated existing plans for the implementation of new technologies” together with improved drive through, social distancing and sanitisation protocols to allow Island Luck to provide curb side services without patrons having to access its physical locations.
“If the Government’s core objective is to reduce the possibility of the spread of COVID-19, we have gone above and beyond to meet that objective,” Mr Bastian said. “In fact, Island Luck has one of the most efficient and well-organised curb side services in The Bahamas.
“Given the Prime Minister’s finger-wagging at the gaming industry despite these measures, it can only be assumed that reducing the spread of COVID-19 is not the Government’s core objective. And, with liquor stores and other ‘non-essential’ businesses open, we now know that the aim is not to limit so-called ‘vices’ or to restrict the operation of non-essential businesses.”
Questioning why there had been no dialogue with an industry that employs 3,500 as the unemployment rate heads towards 30 percent, Mr Bastian added: “Instead, there has been silence and the gaming industry has been assailed by this government yet again....
“To avoid further confusion, the Government should make clear its decision-making processes as it relates to business openings and take an inclusive approach to this by engaging industry stakeholders the same way that courtesy is extended to other industries. Regardless, it leaves a glaring question: Are these measures purposeful or personal.”
Tribune Business understands that the Gaming Board last week sought legal advice from the Attorney General’s Office over whether domestic gaming could re-open delivery and curb-side services and was told it could go ahead.