By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Several web shops yesterday "lit the candle under" their attorney to file legal action against the Government by tomorrow "at the latest" over their continuing COVID-19 closure.
Wayne Munroe QC, who is representing Paradise Games and TIG Investments, trading as The Island Game, told Tribune Business his clients had ordered him to fast-track litigation and not bother offering the Government a chance to reconsider its actions.
Blasting the Minnis administration's treatment of domestic gaming as "unfathomable", Mr Munroe said he hoped to file the necessary legal papers with the Supreme Court registry either today or tomorrow.
He confirmed that the action will challenge "the validity" of the Government's Emergency Powers regulations in the first instance and, should that prove unsuccessful, he and his clients will target their use in "singling out gaming houses" as the only industry that cannot provide delivery, drive through or curb side services to patrons.
Mr Munroe said he had still been writing the letter, which he had hoped to send to the Prime Minister's Office last Friday, giving it an opportunity to reverse course and provide the medical explanation for closing domestic gaming once again, when his clients decided to quicken the pace.
"We were working on the letter when I spoke to them this morning," he revealed. "We've decided to just file the action. They pointed put to me that they feel, as a result of the article in your newspaper [on Friday], the Government has already had an opportunity to react and didn't react.
"They don't feel there's any point wasting time writing to them. I've been told I need to, as it were.... they lit the candle under me. I've been told to task it, and get it done as quickly as possible."
Describing the mood of his clients and the wider domestic gaming industry, Mr Munroe added: "For most of them it's more a matter of, I wouldn't say indignation as that may be too strong a word for some, but bearing in mind these were persons in a 'black/grey' market that pushed to be regulated and taxed, and then they were heavily regulated and taxed, it's unfathomable after all that why they're treated like this.
"Hopefully we'll be in a position to file tomorrow, if not Thursday at the latest." Much like the Prime Minister's to keep COVID-19 restrictions on certain Family Islands, such as Exuma, Eleuthera, San Salvador and the Berry Islands, no explanation has also been forthcoming for the Government's decision to order web shops to close just one week after they re-opened to provide delivery, drive through and curb side services like other sectors.
Dr Hubert Minnis, in one of his national addresses, said the permission granted for businesses to provide delivery and curb-side pick-up services was “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’.”
The domestic gaming industry immediately pushed back against what it branded as an arbitrary and discriminatory action that deliberately singled out the sector, but there is little sign that Dr Minnis - as the "Competent Authority" overseeing enforcement of the COVID-19 Emergency Powers - is willing to change course.
Web shop operators are arguing that their closure cannot be based on medical grounds, given that the likes of liquor stores - which could also be viewed as detrimental to health during a pandemic - have been permitted to offer delivery and curb-side pick-up services.
They are also pointing out that their operations pose no greater threat of spreading COVID-19 than food stores and other businesses allowed to re-open, while it was their regulator, the Gaming Board, that gave them written permission to re-open provided the necessary health and safety protocols are in place.
However, many observers believe that the Prime Minister ordered the domestic gaming sector's closure to prevent jobless Bahamians from spending their National Insurance Board (NIB) unemployment benefits on numbers purchases as opposed to food, water and other essentials critical to ensuring their families survive during this time of hardship.
Meanwhile, Mr Munroe told Tribune Business yesterday he plans to mount a two-pronged challenge against the Government's closure order. "It's going to be a challenge to the Emergency Powers regulations; the validity of the emergency regulations. That's the primary challenge," he explained.
"Alternatively, if we're wrong and the emergency regulations are valid, then we'll challenge the use of that power granted to single out gaming houses for curb-side service. The power is supposed to be used to prevent the spread of the virus. That's going to be the basis of the challenge - the regulations and, if we're wrong in that, the exercise of the power given by those regulations."
Mr Munroe has long argued that the emergency regulation is illegal under the Emergency Powers Act, as the law does not allow the Governor-General to make such regulations on the basis of public health. He has suggested that many businesses besides web shops might be able to claim compensation for their closure as a result, and is now planning to deploy this argument on behalf of that specific sector.
The well-known QC contrasted domestic gaming's shuttering with the fact that Sun Cash, the National Insurance Board's (NIB) chosen digital payments provider for distributing unemployment benefits, has just two physical locations.
"Directing more persons to pile up in one location is more dangerous than having people spread out, which is the way you control this virus," he added. "Having two payment points as opposed to ten cannot make sense."