By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Bahamian contractors yesterday conceded that re-opening the construction sector involves "a big risk" and "cannot be business as usual", but argued: "Living with COVID-19 is the new reality."
Leonard Sands, the Bahamian Contractors Association's (BCA) immediate past president, told Tribune Business this nation "cannot continue indefinitely with the country being locked down" as this was akin "to allowing the patient to live longer, but eventually they die".
Acknowledging that "not everyone shares" his view, Mr Sands said it appeared The Bahamas will have little choice but to balance re-opening the economy with the necessary health and safety measures and their enforcement otherwise "the entire country" will be forced into the unsustainable situation of living off the government.
Michael Pratt, the BCA's current president, yesterday confirmed the industry body is currently canvassing the views of members to develop a position that will be presented to the government on how the industry can re-open.
"We have a myriad of opinions," he told Tribune Business. "While some contractors feel we should get back to business, others are saying we should be extremely careful as we don't want an outbreak to harm the industry. We're already short of workers, and don't want to further damage the industry by putting them out front and not being fully prepared."
This newspaper understands that a group of Bahamian contractors, independent of the BCA, and individual operators have already written to the Minnis administration arguing that the restrictions imposed on the sector - especially in New Providence - as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown should be relaxed to allow the industry to resume work with the necessary safety protocols in place.
The government on Sunday gave the go-ahead for Family Island construction to resume, and permitted the hardware stores supplying them to re-open from Monday to Friday between 7am and 5pm. However, the industry remains locked down in the capital for the moment.
Mr Pratt said the BCA was working with occupational health and safety specialists, including one of its board members who runs a sanitation and cleaning company, to develop training courses and standard health protocols to ensure contractors can both re-open and combat COVID-19's threat.
Arguing that most in the industry have already embraced a safety culture due to the nature of their work, Mr Pratt added that COVID-19 would require the sector to go further by ensuring work sites were clean; temperatures were checked before workers came on site; hand sanitisers were provided; masks worn; and social distancing observed.
He said project managers will also need to organise their job sites such that sub-contractors, such as plumbers and electricians, performed their work with sufficient social distancing in carrying out interior work on buildings.
"Don't go after the profit line but protect the workers," Mr Pratt added. "We have to make a decision. It's a big risk and we don't want to go out there believing it's business as usual. We have to respect what's going on with the health concerns and how to deal with our workers.
"The concern is that we do get something moving in the industry. There are a lot of people unemployed all over. The contractors, and workers who are there, these guys are concerned when the next job is coming in."
The BCA chief conceded that self-employed tradespersons, in particular, may not have made contributions to the National Insurance Board (NIB) and are now running into difficulties when it comes to obtaining unemployment benefits amid the COVID-19 pandemic fall-out.
"That's one of my major concerns for getting the industry going. That's a major risk to our economy," Mr Pratt added. "We have to find a way to get it open and get it moving, and get money into their hands. They are under the radar for a number of reasons. It's very expensive to do business in this country, so that may not have contributed to NIB and put that payment off."
Mr Sands, meanwhile, said he and other Bahamian contractors were closely watching how other countries were handling the re-opening or continuation of construction activity recognising the "new normal" created by COVID-19.
"Other nations are looking at going back to work in a COVID-19 environment," he told Tribune Business. "I'm not saying that's the position The Bahamas is going to take based on the fragility of its medical and healthcare infrastructure. But the world will have to go back to work with COVID-19.
"There has to be a comprehensive strategic plan and enforcement to to make it work so that we don't have an outbreak. That's going to come in the next couple of weeks, as I don't think anybody has a choice but to live with that reality.
"I know everything is predicated on what the public health officials are saying. We have to be as cautious as possible as we don't want to put lives at risk, but it's recognising that there has to be some economic activity that can be shielded as best as possible and can continue."
The latest Department of Statistics report found the construction industry employed 19,500 persons, and Mr Sands argued that the sector "represents low hanging fruit and bigger numbers in terms of the rebound of the economy" than other businesses that have been allowed to remain open, such as pharmacies.
He argued that the industry "adds more value", especially since it has a tendency to absorb semi-skilled and unskilled labour who immediately spend their weekly pay back into the economy, increasing the speed at which money circulates.
Noting that the Government's emergency powers order had stopped several multi-million contracts in their tracks, Mr Sands said that while this was the correct action to have taken it was time to get existing construction projects moving again with the necessary precautions in place.
"That is going to put money back into the economy and ensure persons are not overly encroaching on the social security system," he told Tribune Business. "Not everyone shares this view. I looked at what they're doing in Canada, parts of the US. Georgia is about to open everything again.
"You can say the governor of Georgia is crazy or he has the necessary policies and protocols in place to manage the economy as it re-opens. We have to put mechanisms in place to manage our economy with COVID-19 being the reality.
"We cannot continue indefinitely with the country being locked down. It will shut down and stop. What we are really doing is we've allowed the patient to live longer, but he eventually dies."
Mr Sands admitted he "did not want to be in the Prime Minister's position" regarding the "very difficult decision" he must make on when, and how, to re-open the economy. But he added: "Right now the entire country is flooding to the Government of The Bahamas for sustenance, and that's already unsustainable.
"There has to be a measured approach as to how we look at this and implement it. To me, it is a necessary evil."