By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Freeport's private sector yesterday demanded the Government "cease and desist" from further business lockdowns amid fears The Bahamas will "die economically" unless it learns to live with COIVID-19.
Some 184 Grand Bahama-based small business owners, in an August 23, 2020, letter to the Prime Minister, warned they "intend to act" unless he and other government ministers meet with them to present "a clear plan" on how to re-open their ventures and the wider economy.
What was meant by "intend to act" was not clear from the letter, but participants on the weekend Zoom conference call attended by the 184 businesses said there was talk of staging a "silent protest" or "forming a ring" around the Prime Minister's Office in Freeport while respecting social distancing and other COVID-19 health protocols.
"They had a Zoom meeting and they're all raising hell," one source who attended, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Tribune Business. They said the meeting's main organiser appeared to be Darren Cooper, the entrepreneur behind D's Car Rentals.
The letter, which was addressed to Dr Hubert Minnis, provides further evidence of the growing frustration, anxiety and helplessness felt by many Bahamian businessmen as the constant COVID-19 lockdowns and uncertainty increasingly threaten to take away their livelihoods and those of their employees.
"The Grand Bahama economy has been in a vortex for a number of years now for what seems like an eternity," the letter said. "The downward spiral of this economy didn't just begin with Hurricane Dorian in 2019 or COVID-19.
"This island has suffered this carnage, and has been on life support, since the hurricanes of 2004 (France and Jeanne) with what seems like no end in sight. Prime Minister Hubert Minnis, should there be any further closure/lockdown of this community it will certainly take us to an insolvent position."
Grand Bahama has been in lockdown since early August in a bid to halt a surge in COVID-19 cases, but the letter sent on behalf of the 184 small businesses pointed to recent World Health Organisation advice recommending against such restrictions being imposed nationwide.
Arguing that the private sector had shown after the first re-opening that it can mitigate COVID-19 risks by applying the necessary safety protocols, and operating curbside and delivery services, the letter acknowledged that The Bahamas "remains in crisis at this time".
Yet it then warned: "This note serves as a request for the Competent Authority of the Prime Minister of The Bahamas to cease and desist from any closure or lockdown of businesses on Grand Bahama." It said action would be taken if "no immediate response" was received to its request for a meeting setting out a strategy and rules for the economy's re-opening and the safety procedures that must be in place.
The Zoom meeting, and letter, also highlight the growing belief among some that the "cure is becoming worse than the problem" in relation to COVID-19, especially the devastation it is inflicting on businesses, the economy and employment.
The small businesses' move comes after the Grand Bahama Chamber of Commerce, in a statement last week, said The Bahamas must learn to live with the virus or risk the total collapse of its economy.
"COVID-19 will be around for the foreseeable future, and we should be focusing on ways to live with it nationally or die economically," it said. "The Grand Bahama Chamber of Commerce (GBCC) remains extremely concerned about our post-Dorian and now post-COVID economy in Grand Bahama and nationally.
"We ask special consideration in lifting the lockdown to avoid the further suppression of commerce on the island. GB Chamber remains committed to working with all stakeholders. However, we ask for consideration for alternative measures besides lockdowns."
The GB Chamber suggested a phased economic re-opening, moving from 7am to 7pm week day openings for businesses and a 9pm curfew with total weekend lockdowns; to 7am to 7pm all-week openings and 9pm curfews on all days. The third phase would remove all restrictions apart from 9pm weekend curfews, with the latter falling away in the final stage.
It also called for a national 90-day VAT "holiday" to help restart the domestic economy, and called for the Government's tax credit and deferral initiative to reduce the qualifying criteria from 80 percent staff retention to 50 percent to help small businesses.
"By making this reduction, more companies will reopen, which will lessen the burden on the Government," the GB Chamber said. "Perhaps this is the most significant opportunity for diversification of our fragile economy as we seek a brighter future for all Bahamians; we must be bold and innovative in our way forward."