By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A Bahamian retailer yesterday urged the government to "stop picking winners and losers" in determining which businesses are COVID-19 "essentials" after he was forced to fully terminate 20 staff.
Egan Kemp, president of Eunison Company, the Shoe Depot parent, reiterated his call for the Minnis administration to provide a medical explanation for the "disparity" in how some businesses and industries have been allowed to re-open while others in the same or different sectors have not.
He argued that the restaurant industry was a prime example, as fast-food restaurant chains such as Wendy's, Burger King and KFC have all been permitted to remain open via drive through services, while those at Arawak Cay and Potter's Cay Dock have been ordered shuttered.
Suggesting that the government was effectively "discriminating against their own" by this, Mr Kemp said it needed to get out of the way and "let us operate" on a level playing field with a common set of "parameters" and health protocols such as restrictions on the number of customers allowed in a store based on its square footage size.
Emphasising that he had no quarrel with those industries and companies allowed to open, he explained his concerns were not just for himself or Shoe Depot as there were many other retailers - clothing, electronics and jewellery vendors among them - who have been unable to open due to the restrictions imposed by the government's Emergency Powers (COVID-19) Orders.
Pointing out that it was now two months since the COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns were imposed, Mr Kemp questioned how it was possible for still-closed businesses to exist without a single cent of revenue income for that period.
Although Shoe Depot's had re-opened on Monday to offer curb-side and pick-up services, he revealed that "the numbers are already not adding up" sufficiently to justify continuing this given the fixed utility and labour costs the retailer has to continue meeting.
Mr Kemp added that some customers had already voiced their anger and frustration at not being allowed to enter the stores physically, with one exchange even reaching to "the point of confrontation".
"It's very difficult. It's costly," he told Tribune Business of the present operating "normal" faced by his business and many others. "The numbers are already not adding up. I've already told my people that if the numbers don't improve it's better to stay closed than open on the curb-side because of electricity and labour costs. It will not be doable. It's been very hard.
"My biggest thing is the medical reasons. This is a medical crisis. What's the medical reasoning for the disparity between some businesses being open and others closed, and completely shut down by government force? All I want is the medical explanation for the biased conditions that exist in the marketplace."
Citing the restaurant industry, and the differing dates of the fast food franchises and traditional Bahamian eateries, Mr Kemp added: "It's like the Government is favouring the big foreign brands over its own native restaurants, and those who have invested their lives into building those businesses.
"They're literally discriminating against their own. Where is the medical reasoning for that disparity? Please explain that to me, Mr Government. What is the medical reason Kelly's, Super Value, Subway, Starbucks, Solomon's, Cost Right, AID etc can have customers inside their business but we and countless others cannot?
"The Government is being completely prejudicial in its 'essential' versus 'non-essential', and even on the staged opening. It's not about my business. There are many others out there, whether they sell clothing, jewellery, electronics and those that the Government has deemed to be non-essential. Why make it impossible for them to have customers in their place of operations, but it's medically OK for those 'essential' businesses?
"I'm not mad at those people. I'm upset with the Government picking winners and losers, and effectively writing off half of the workforce and letting them disappear." Mr Kemp argued that the Government would pay for this through its own reduced revenue income, which would ultimately force it to cut either public sector jobs, payroll or both to bring its spending into line.
Restaurants with the necessary capacity and facilities have been permitted to offer drive through, take-out and home delivery services, but no walk-ins are allowed. However, the Emergency Powers Orders specifically prohibit the re-opening of the Arawak Cay Fish Fry and Potter's Cay.
Retailers categorised as "non-essential" will be permitted to open their physical stores in "Phase three" of the Government's economic re-opening strategy, albeit with limits on the number of customers and the continuation of health protocols such as wearing masks and social distancing. Employee numbers may also be reduced. Currently, The Bahamas has barely reached "phase two".
Mr Kemp, meanwhile, acknowledging the need to prevent COVID-19's spread via the initial lockdown, curfews and other measures, told Tribune Business: "We're now months into this. I want to ask the Government, government workers, essential businesses and essential workers: What would you do if you were cut off from income for two months? Could you survive?
"They don't feel the pain so many other Bahamians have felt. This week I had to terminate 20 of my employees; fully terminate. It was heart-breaking, wrenching, and I was on the point of tears in having to do this. I spoke to a government worker about this, who said: 'I'm sure they understand.' They don't understand. That's their income.
"I really want the Government to put itself in the place of those people and businesses forced to be closed, and have some compassion and empathy instead of sympathy. Could you survive two months without income? No, you couldn't."
Mr Kemp said he had "tried to soften as much as possible" the blow caused by terminating 40 percent of the Shoe Depot's staff by concentrating the redundancies among those with the least years of service. The move also comes after the company moved out of its former Mall at Marathon outlet after it was unable to agree satisfactory terms on a new lease.
In assessing how the curb-side service had gone, the Shoe Depot chief said the biggest complaint from customers was the inability to go into the company's store locations unlike "essential" retailers who are able to offer these services. Clothing (apparel) and footwear retailers are at a slight disadvantage here because consumers frequently like to try-on product before they purchase it, which represents another health risk.
"The biggest complaint that customers were very adamant and angry about was why was the Government not allowing us to permit customers inside while other businesses were, almost to the point of confrontation with one customer in particular," Mr Kemp said.
"We should all be allowed to open with the same parameters. Let us operate. It looks like this virus is going to be with us for a while. We all need the opportunity and to make decisions about the level of risk we're willing to take. It is important for the Government to understand that freedom of choice.
"Let every industry decide. Give basic parameters that we have to follow, and the customer will decide what stores they will go into or not. At the rate we're going, we're going to destroy so many businesses and livelihoods and it's just not necessary. It's going to be tough enough to survive as is without the tourism business."