• Chamber chief: 'Horse left stable' on such restrictions
• Lack of commercial infrastructure creates 'choke points'
• Council head worries over Dorian rebuilding 'setback'
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Abaco's Chamber of Commerce president yesterday warned that reimposing a full COVID-19 lockdown on the island would deal its economy and Dorian recovery a "possibly irreparable blow".
Ken Hutton told Tribune Business that "the horse has left the stable" when it came to extreme measures to halt the pandemic's spread, adding that such 'cures' would effectively "kill the patient" in terms of businesses and jobs.
Reacting to the Prime Minister's signal that further restrictions are inevitable to halt COVIID-19's spread on both New Providence and Grand Bahama, he said the Abaco Chamber had been sufficiently alarmed to call an emergency Board meeting to discuss the issue yesterday morning.
Arguing that The Bahamas now has to focus on risk mitigation, and protecting "the most vulnerable communities" such as elderly persons and those with chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes, Mr Hutton said the implementation of any lockdown or increased curbs now would be especially harmful as Abaco was "just beginning to hit our stride" on post-Dorian rebuilding.
Pointing out that a new lockdown would force numerous non-governmental organisations (NGOs), many of whom have just returned to Abaco to assist with reconstruction once again, he added that it also threatened to send a potentially negative signal to second homeowners still mulling whether to invest in rebuilding their properties.
Calling for better health data and information to be made available, so Abaconians could better identify COVID-19 "hot spots", the Chamber chief said the slow pace of commercial infrastructure rebuilding post-Dorian had resulted in "choke points" such as Marsh Harbour's sole food store, bank and automated teller machines (ATMs), aiding the spread of the virus.
Emphasising that Abaco "cannot afford" another lockdown or measures that come close to it, Mr Hutton told this newspaper: "We called an emergency Board meeting of the Chamber this morning to discuss the issue, and we are concerned about the implications of new measures in Abaco at this time.
"According to their protocols, a lot of NGOs - if Abaco were to lock down - many of them would have to pull out again. Many have just returned, and we are just beginning to hit our stride again and getting back into that mode of rebuilding and getting a track record and some kind of impetus going.
"We're still waiting for the second homeowners to return. Many have not returned since Dorian. The driving force of the Abaco economy has not returned. If we were to go back into lockdown I fear for this place. I think it will be a tremendous, possibly irreparable blow, for Abaco."
Mr Hutton said Abaco's public health services "are severely under-staffed" when it came to COVID-19's testing and contact tracing demands, but acknowledged the dilemma or "double-edged sword" in calling for increased personnel due to the absence of suitable accommodation on the island post-Dorian.
He also lamented the quality of information being released surrounding Abaco's present 147 cases, noting that when the pandemic first reached the island, Guana Cay and Moore's Island were identified as "hot spots".
However, Dr Gillian Bartlett, who heads the Family Islands COVID-19 task force, said of Abaco cases last Friday: “What we’re seeing is definitely an increase of COVID, mostly on mainland Abaco -Cooper’s Town, Marsh Harbour and also in the Sandypoint area. We’re just having a lot of persons presenting to our clinics with side symptoms of COVID.
"And when you contact trace, you also find that those persons (who they) have been in close contact with are also coming down with symptoms so that seems to be widening the spread in Abaco and it definitely is an island of concern.”
Mr Hutton, though, yesterday said "nobody is taking this lightly" in the business community. Suggesting that most were following the protocols very strictly, he cited his own business, Premier Importers. where only one customer is allowed "into the yard" at a time, and all consumers and staff have to wear masks.
"The problem we have here, because our commercial infrastructure is fairly non-existent, is that we have choke points," he explained. "Maxwells is the only food store, so we have people congregating, we only have a certain amount of ATMs and only one bank. You have these choke points where people have no choice but to congregate and, if there's limited space inside, they are all bunched together.
"These are not complaints. This is just the way it is. If there's consideration for another lockdown we would definitely advise against that. We believe the days of lockdown, that horse has left the building. We have to deal with the consequences and mitigate the risk of this more effectively, and protect the most vulnerable communities.
"My biggest fear is that attempting another lockdown, the preventative measures will kill the patient. We cannot afford another lockdown. We are in hurricane season, there's much work to be done. We have no shelters, and there are scores of people without roofs on their homes who are working to rebuild their homes and businesses. Having everything on hold again would be devastating here.
"I would say a cookie cutter approach would not work here because of the circumstances and the rebuilding process, primarily. I truly hope the Prime Minister takes those things into consideration. Taking measures in excess of the COVID-19 protocols will not be helpful. That's not going to work."
Roscoe Thompson, the Marsh Harbour/Spring City Council’s head, yesterday told Tribune Business that implementing a fresh lockdown or tougher curbs would be "difficult" for Abaco's reconstruction efforts but admitted "a lot of people are not following the protocols" of mask wearing, social distancing and hand sanitisation.
"A lot of this is being brought on by ourselves. It'll really hurt us at this point in time because of the construction," he added. "If people aren't allowed to go to work on houses and do work on construction that's going to be a tremendous setback."