By YOURI KEMP
Tribune Business Reporter
Several Bahamian retailers were yesterday said to be on the verge of bankruptcy due to the COVID-19 lockdown, with some saying: "Curb side sales can't even cover the cost of turning the AC on."
Tara Morley, the Bahamas Federation of Retailers (BFR) co-president, told Tribune Business yesterday that members were increasingly calling her and warning their businesses will be unable to survive as they enter their tenth week of being closed.
"Some of them are large clothing retailers in the nation, and it is more than just one," she said. "There are about six that I personally know of. Obviously they are not wanting to have that information disclosed."
She spoke out after the Federation, in a hard-hitting statement, warned that many retailers "already on the edge" prior to COVID-19 were likely not to re-open in a move that will worsen unemployment levels projected by the prime minister to be at 30 percent and rising.
While expressing gratitude to Dr Hubert Minnis for allowing businesses to offer curb-side and home delivery services, the Federation warned that this was simply insufficient for many retailers to survive. It questioned why the government had failed to "meaningfully engage" over its proposal to reduce the jobless lines by allowing customers access to stores on an "appointment basis", and with social distancing protocols in place.
Warning that the Bahamian economy potentially risked "losing a whole sector" when there had been no increase in COVID-19 cases, the Federation said: "The bulk of customer feedback based on opening curbside was that clients for these categories will wait to shop until they can be serviced in store. This has left retailers in this category with little to no income, while the cost to operationalise curbside has outweighed the benefit of reopening.
"In some cases, members provided feedback that sales from curb side did not even cover the cost of turning on the AC for the week. Meanwhile, the bulk of employees who work for Federation member businesses have yet to see one dollar of NIB benefits.
"Businesses want to decrease the burden by getting their employees back to work, but government continues to push back. Meanwhile, customers are expressing frustration with apparel, jewellery and accessories and beauty and fragrance store owners denying them entry. They do not understand why they cannot access the premises when mixed retail spaces that have clothing and housewares can service them in-store."
Ms Morley said some retailers are "already operating", adding: "They are already operating in hotels; they are already operating out of homeware stores, which is another non-essential category; they are already operating in a lot of locations, but privately/quietly because if they don't open their doors, they're going to go out of business.
"Yet there hasn't been an increase in cases, so the longer that they don't open it, the more businesses are going to illegally open their doors because their alternative is bankruptcy and, in the interim, unless you open the doors and have public rules and protocols that are available, then there is no enforcement going on in those stores when they are open quietly."
Ms Morley continued: "This is unfair because there is a lot of us basically that follow the law, and we're being punished for following the law when other people are blatantly open right now. I don't blame those people as they are trying to save their business. All of us want to respect the health of the nation, but at this point you have homes stores open, which we are in agreement with.
"You have hardware stores open. Obviously grocers and pharmacies are essential businesses. so that makes sense that they have been open through the duration, but we're not seeing where - if there is 500 people in Kelly's in a day, or if there is 250 people in the grocery stores during the course of the day - when we are asking to have one person at a time, or one family at a time, to come into our stores at a time, then how is that putting the population more at risk than hundreds of persons in the other categories?"
Revealing that she "doesn't know" if retailers will mount a legal challenge like the web shops through the courts, Ms Morley said: "I know I have gotten a lot of tearful phone calls from people, because they're facing bankruptcy and they have been in business for years.
"We are all kind of expecting that when curb side and delivery was allowed, people were thinking that we would be allowed to operate by appointment when curb side and delivery was permitted, and that was on May 4. Then we thought they were doing curb side and delivery for a week, they are going to see how that goes, and then give us 'by appointment' the following week.
"But then that didn't happen, so then we said they are going to give it to us this week, and then that didn't happen this week either, but yet no one is explaining to us after we have conversed with them and sent them e-mails, they are not getting back to us as to explain the rationale as to why."
The Federation, in its statement, said: "After multiple conversations with the National Coordination Committee on Covid-19 (NCCC) and letters sent to the Prime Minister, we have yet to receive any meaningful engagement or feedback as to why our proposal has not been allowed. If there are specific health concerns the NCCC or Ministry of Health have, then we would appreciate the opportunity to meet with them.
"Many retailers were already on the edge before COVID-19, but unless they can re-open soon many stores will go out of business, further exacerbating unemployment levels. Already we have had members who were forced to permanently cease operations as early as April 30 due to the economic crisis we all face.
"Other members have indicated they will be consolidating their locations as they can no longer afford the overhead after being shut down for such an extended period of time. As the second largest private sector employer outside of hotels and restaurants, these retail closures will have a long-term devastating impact on employment in our nation. Is it worth potentially losing a whole sector of the retail industry given there has not been an increase in cases?"
The Federation continued: "Members have collaborated extensively on researching international best practices for operating in each category in the safest way possible given the new normal we all face. Our commitment is to only move forward with a re-opening once we're confident we can safely return to serving our customers from our stores and providing a safe environment for employees.
"Non-essential retailers can follow the lead of grocery, drug, home and hardware retailers by putting the appropriate protocols in place for their respective categories. In every store, we're focused on limiting occupancy and giving everyone lots of room. This is why we are asking to reopen in the limited capacity of 'by appointment' and/or through social distancing restrictions of no more than five persons per 1,000 square feet.
"This will provide assurances with regard to crowd management in addition to the requisite use of masks by both customers and employees. Retailers in these categories would also have the opportunity to sanitize high touch surfaces throughout the day as already successfully implemented by their colleagues in other categories. Those who do not abide by the official protocols will be fined just like any other business who is currently operating."
And the Federation added: "Based on the latest update from the Prime Minister's address on Sunday, May 17, we are on target to open our borders on July 1. However, there has been no movement on opening additional categories of business since May 4. We've been seeing steady progress in the right direction with no deaths in over a month, and no new cases in Nassau since May 13.
"However, this is not translating into economic relief. We recognise that the world is faced with an unprecedented challenge and unknowns surrounding the COVID-19 Pandemic. No one can deny that the efforts our government has made to keep the citizens of The Bahamas safe during these difficult times are to be commended. However, now they need to refocus on balancing health with a steady reopening of the economy."
Ms Morley said: "If here is a health reason we are unware of, then tell me about it so at least I can have an understanding that I can communicate to our members when they call me in tears about having to terminate their business and losing all of their life savings, and also terminating all of their employees who they have employed for years who are also calling them in tears asking them to come back to work."