• Chamber chief fears hit for Dorian reconstruction
• Argues island ‘can’t catch a break’ since storm
• Urges govt clarity on A/C, mattress tax breaks
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Abaco’s Chamber of Commerce president yesterday voiced fears that the new US quarantine policy will “slam the door again” on the island’s post-Dorian reconstruction, adding: “We can’t catch a break.”
Ken Hutton told Tribune Business that the latest US COVID-19 protocols, including the requirement that all returning travellers must produce a negative virus test taken within three days of their trip, are already deterring the second homeowners that comprise Abaco’s economic core from returning to rebuild their hurricane-devastated properties.
Besides the impact on US citizens, he added that the “blanket” implementation of a quarantine on all foreign travellers would likely prevent Abaco residents from visiting the US to buy essential materials and other supplies vital to the restoration of their homes and businesses. This becomes critical given the deadlines imposed by the government for accessing Dorian-related tax breaks.
While much attention has been placed on the potential tourism fall-out from the Biden administration’s quarantine move, Mr Hutton acknowledged that it also threatens to inflict further disruption on Dorian recovery efforts - which have already been interrupted by COVID-19 - with another hurricane season less than six months away.
“We’ve already seen that,” he told this newspaper of the impact from the proposed US protocols. “We’ve had second homeowners that were here that started the rebuilding process and left before the 26th. They left before that. They cut the amount of time they had short because of that. We’ve already seen a serious deterrent effect here because of that.”
The requirement for all incoming international travellers to present a negative COVID-19 test, including US citizens, had been scheduled to take effect from yesterday, although the Biden administration’s executive order last week placed this and the potential quarantine on a 14-day review.
“It’s so frustrating, because after the New Year we were starting to see the second homeowners come back and rebuild, and with this it’s like slamming the door again. We can’t win,” Mr Hutton added of the US move. “We’re not very happy about it. It’s certainly not an ideal thing.
“I thought we were rounding the corner on this thing. Abaco was seeing a really good trend line on infections, and anybody coming to Abaco had to have a negative test. I don’t think it’s a potential death blow; we’re well past that, but it’s something that is going to have a serious negative effect on our rebuilding efforts again. Again. We can’t catch a break.”
Mr Hutton said he was also aware of Bahamians postponing, or rushing forward, essential travel to the US in a bid to either beat or avoid the Biden administration’s measures to crack down on surging COVID-19 infection and death rates that are effectively out of control.
“I know of people putting off serious medical operations because they don’t have time to quarantine,” the Chamber chief added, while expressing hope that The Bahamas could be exempted from the quarantine and other, stricter requirements based on its present low COVID-19 infection rates.
“I’m hoping that there will be some tweaks to this blanket policy the US government has put out based on the risk factor any particular country poses,” he added. “I’m hopeful of that. It’s not a one-size-fits-all world. Mr Hutton thus echoed Dionisio D’Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, who has also argued that The Bahamas can make the case for an exemption.
The Bahamas is presently in the middle of a nervous 14-day wait to see how the Biden administration plans to implement the potential quarantine, especially the details of how it will be applied and rolled-out.
The US president’s executive order reads: “It is the policy of my administration that, to the extent feasible, travellers seeking to enter the United States from a foreign country shall be required to produce proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test prior to entry, and required to comply with other applicable CDC guidelines concerning international travel, including recommended periods of self-quarantine or self-isolation after entry into the United States.”
It adds that this assessment will examine “the feasibility of implementing alternative and sufficiently protective public health measures, such as testing, self-quarantine and self-isolation on arrival, for travellers entering the US from countries where COVID-19 tests are inaccessible”.....
Some have interpreted this as meaning the new administration will spend 14 days assessing present regulations to determine if quarantine or some other measure is an appropriate alternative for travellers coming from countries that have inadequate COVID-19 testing.
The Bahamas, with its present five-day rapid antigen testing infrastructure, could avoid falling into this category, which means that quarantine would then not be required for travellers returning to the US from this nation. If that comes true, they would only need the negative COVID-19 test taken within three days of travelling.
Mr Hutton, meanwhile, said Abaco residents and businesses still “need more clarity” around the Special Economic Recovery Zone (SERZ) tax breaks as he voiced disappointment that the Government had yet to respond to a Chamber letter suggesting more tariff headings that should be included under the VAT and import tariff exemptions.
“The announcement said building materials, furniture, fixtures and equipment were included,” the Chamber president said. “But that doesn’t include mattresses and air conditioners, apparently. What house in The Bahamas doesn’t have air conditioning? Who builds a home without a mattress? I’m trying to work out what part of furniture and fixtures doesn’t include that. We’ve had people ringing us up about that.”
In response, and after consultation with Chamber members and customs brokers, Mr Hutton said a letter containing “one-and-a-half pages” of tariff headings that the private sector believes should be included in the ongoing Dorian tax breaks was submitted to Kwasi Thompson, minister of state for finance; Gaynell Rolle, acting head of Inland Revenue, and Dr Geannine Moss, Customs comptroller, last week.
He added that it was “very disappointing” that the Chamber’s letter had yet to be even acknowledged, especially since its approach was non-confrontational and only aiming to “make things easier for everyone” by ensuring all sides have agreed what the Dorian tax breaks cover.
Arguing that it was critical to prevent “miscommunication and abuse”, and allowing Customs officers to use their “discretion” over who and what the tax exemptions apply to, Mr Hutton said: “Let’s put it on the table. People need to know exactly what they’re able to bring in, and aren’t able to bring in, duty and VAT free.”
The Chamber president, though, did praise the Government for easing COVID-19 restrictions on Abaco to the extent that it permitted the reconstruction effort to continue over the past year.