By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A Bimini dive operator is hoping COVID-related cancellations do not exceed the current 15 percent level with “40 percent of more” of annual business generated in the first three calendar months.
Neal Watson, owner of Neal Watson’s Bimini Scuba Centre, told Tribune Business that Omicron-related booking cancellations by visitors were currently “noticeable but not devastating” to the business.
However, he voiced concern that the situation involving the Omicron variant will not get much worse, given that the three months to end-March typically account for the majority of the company’s revenues due to the popularity of shark diving and other excursions.
“I feel like a lot of guests have called, maybe more than they ever did in the past, to say they’ve cancelled because they’ve tested positive for it,” Mr Watson told this newspaper. “It’s better testing positive there and don’t come.
“I’ve had a good amount of people that just ended up testing positive or couldn’t get their test results back in time or decided not to travel because there was too much uncertainty. Hopefully we can weather this one like the other ones and get back to work.
“That’s really when we got the first set of cancellations, Christmas and the New Year, and it’s still continuing,” Mr Watson continued. “I don’t think it’s too bad just yet, but I would say it’s right about 15 percent [who have cancelled]. It’s noticeable but not devastating.
“If it stays there or gets better we will be alright.... In January, February and March we’re at our busiest time of year with shark diving and stuff. We have 22 staff in total, as at this time we swell from 16-17. Hopefully, we can just keep this going. For us, we make 40 percent of our annual revenues or even more in the first three months.
“We have to stay really focused. This three months, I hope we can keep it for tourism and to make money. We’re going to keep trying, as long as it doesn’t get too much worse and people have access to tests and can get them. I think we’ll be alright.”
Mr Watson said he was in the process of sourcing 400 COVID test kits from Florida so that his staff could be tested on a regular basis, fearing that the emergence of Omicron among his workforce could have a devastating impact if it produced numerous cases forcing a temporary halt to business.
“I’m just worried about a shortage of tests, and we’re going to get a batch of our own,” he added. “I’ve purchased them and have just got to figure out how to get them over. If it gets in the shop with our workers, that’s not good. We’re just going to keep testing the workers and stay ahead of any possible spread.
“If we can test our people to catch it, we can keep the business going. It’s a whole new world now. It’s just a new way of trying to go about doing business, and keeping everyone safe at the same time. If anyone calls in sick for any reason they have to have a test before they can come to work. With a lot of people asymptomatic, we have to test a lot more.”
Mr Watson also praised the Government for revising the COVID isolation and quarantine guidelines, adding: “That can keep any business going.” The tourism industry, and wider private sector, had been advocating a shift away from the rigid 10-day isolation period for persons infected with COVID-19 as well as the 14-day quarantine for those who had been exposed to virus carriers.
They had been calling for The Bahamas to fall in line with US and UK practices, with both those countries having adopted five-day and seven-day quarantine periods, respectively. The subsequent changes were viewed as a boost for tourism, as visitors no longer have to fear a lengthy quarantine if they test positive in The Bahamas, while also enabling locals to return to work more quickly once they test negative and receive the all-clear.
The Ministry of Health and Wellness reforms seek to provide greater flexibility while also still protecting public health. They segment cases, and COVID contacts, into those who are vaccinated and unvaccinated, and those who are asymptomatic and show mild signs from others who suffer more severe illness.
Persons who test positive for COVID, “and are asymptomatic or have mild to moderate illness and are not immunocompromised”, must now isolate for seven days. They can test again on day five, six or seven of their isolation and, if these are negative, can then be released.
However, they must then wear an N95/KN95 mask for a further three days. Alternatively, persons in this category - who are likely to comprise the majority of COVID infections - can isolate for ten days. If the fifth-seventh day test is positive, but symptoms improve, they can be released after 24 hours without a fever or needing medicine.
But those who are “severely symptomatic or immunocompromised” are required to isolate for 20 days. They can be released earlier if a doctor approves, but no earlier than ten days in.
As for “close contacts”, those who are “fully vaccinated and are not immunocompromised” do not have to quarantine. They must limit their movements to “essential activities” until a fifth day test comes back as negative. Those who are “unvaccinated and are not immunocompromised” must quarantine for ten days, and can be released thereafter if they test negative.