• Fears supermarkets will become ‘number one spreader’
• Chain’s staff to stay masked as ‘too dangerous’ to lift
• But others say: Leave choice to individuals, business
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Super Value’s principal yesterday urged the Government to maintain the COVID mask mandate for supermarkets and prevent the sector from becoming “the number one spreader” of the virus.
Rupert Roberts told Tribune Business he felt it was “too dangerous” to end the mandatory wearing of masks in food stores given that they typically attracted large numbers of shoppers who frequently find themselves in close proximity to one another.
Acknowledging that his call may prove unpopular with some, while revealing that the 13-store chain plans to require all its staff to continue wearing masks, he said: “If we’re wrong, we’re wrong on the side of caution.”
The Super Value chief told this newspaper that he had reached out to Dr Nikkiah Forbes, the Ministry of Health and Wellness’ infectious diseases head, and Dr Duane Sands, the Free National Movement (FNM) chairman, among other medical practitioners to make the case to the Davis administration that the mask mandate still be enforced for food stores.
“I’ve asked Dr Sands, and Dr Kevin Bethel and Dr Forbes, to speak on our behalf that the supermarkets want to retain the masks for now, and let’s wait and see what happens and where the virus goes,” Mr Roberts argued. “We said: ‘Please do all you can to keep masks in the supermarket’ because if not we will become the number one spreaders.
“We have kept the public safe so far, and would like to continue that. We don’t want to kill granny and be the top spreaders. Definitely, definitely, we think it’s too dangerous. We will keep our staff in masks, and we would like the Government to keep the public in masks for now....
“I think that for places where people congregate, like supermarkets, they shouldn’t be replaced. That’s our thought and desire. We’d definitely be disappointed if they don’t include us in wearing the masks. We can do this in one, two or three stages.”
Not every food store backed Mr Roberts’ and Super Value’s position, though. Philip Beneby, the Retail Grocers Association’s president, told Tribune Business that Bahamians, residents and tourists should be left to decide for themselves whether they wear a mask or not. And it was up to each merchant and business to decide if they mandate staff and/or customers continue wearing masks once the nationwide requirement is dropped.
“If they feel like the time is now to drop it, I don’t have an issue with that,” Mr Beneby said of the mask mandate. “That’s what it’s going to lead to. Everybody would have their choice and, based on how they feel, how they are going, based on the environment they are in, all they have to do is pull out masks and put them on.
“Nobody is stopping them from doing that. If they feel safer, you may find some people carry a mask and, based on the environment and how congested it is, they may decide to pull on a mask. I don’t have any issue with that. It’s entirely up to the public if they feel safe without a mask.”
Mr Beneby added that the mask mandate’s end was unlikely to spur increased business volumes for companies catering to domestic consumers. “I think it will help the hotels more than the grocery stores and other businesses because then the visitors will feel more freer to move about better, inside and outside, without their masks,” he said.
“The US has lifted their mandatory mask wearing. In order for us to make tourists feel more comfortable, more welcome and make them feel like we’re not imposing any pressure on them with wearing a mask, we had to follow suit.”
The Government, in confirming the mandatory wearing of COVID masks ends on October 1, 2022, said that thereafter they will only be compulsory in indoor school classrooms, care homes for the elderly or in accessing healthcare facilities as The Bahamas comes into line with the stance taken by multiple other countries worldwide.
There has been widespread debate about how effective mask-wearing has been in preventing COVID-19 transmission and spread during the pandemic, with global opinion divided on the issue. Mr Roberts, though, said that while the latest COVID variants may be less deadly than earlier versions, such as the Delta strain, they appeared to be more contagious and easily spread.
“If I go to Kelly’s [Home Centre], mind you it might not be as dense as a supermarket, but if I get up to the register and there are three to four other customers there, I want them all to wear masks, the cashier to wear a mask and the staff to wear masks,” he told Tribune Business. “I don’t wear a mask in the open air, but I don’t dare go into a congested area without a mask for my protection and other people’s protection. We don’t know about this virus yet.
“COVID is still spreading to my knowledge. I’ve seen it in my own family. I’ve seen them travel and come back with it, catching it either at the airport, or the air plane or in the country they’ve visited.” This newspaper, too, knows of one Bahamian chief executive who recently endured a rough two weeks with COVID although it will not name them for this article.
Mr Roberts, who is presently in the US with family, recalled how his wife was asked to pull up her mask by two elderly ladies on Wednesday when she visited a pharmacy at a Wal-Mart store. The pharmacists on-duty also backed the call for her to fix her mask.
“I guess with the exception of people who are elderly or who have medical issues, it’s over,” he added of the pandemic. “But you never know when those issues come up. People, especially children, are getting the virus and don’t even know it, and adults are getting it and thinking it’s the common cold or flu. They are travelling around among us now.
“I know an individual who thought he had the flu, then got tested, and they tested positive for COVID. You never know. I know of somebody that had an issue for two months. There’s no limit to the number of times it can attack you, and every time there’s a toll on the body.”
Conceding that many Bahamians are weary of COVID, and fatigued with the protocols that were introduced to combat it, Mr Roberts said of his supermarket mask-wearing stance: “If we’re wrong, we’re wrong on the side of caution. Given what we’ve been through, we want to act with caution. We didn’t like the lockdowns, we didn’t like the things that happened to us, and we don’t want to go through that again.
“I don’t think that will happen, but there’s a real possibility we will be stricken with a much milder virus that is more contagious, and we don’t know what the danger is. I say: ‘Be cautious’. I want to forget the world ‘COVID’, but I still want to be safe.”