Bahamas the

‘Boiling point’ struck on COVID open inequality

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By NEIL HARTNELL

Tribune Business Editor

nhartnell@tribunemedia.net

A Bahamian businessman yesterday revealed he has reached "boiling point" over the "inequality" that is allowing some competitors to open amid the COVID-19 lockdown while he and others remain closed.

Ben Albury, Bahamas Bus and Truck's general manager, told Tribune Business that this "frustration level is through the roof" as his firm and other Bahamas Motor Dealers Association (BMDA) members are shuttered while other auto parts, tyre repair/replacement, battery and service providers continue to operate without any restrictions.

Confirming that the BMDA this week wrote to the Prime Minister's Office (the Competent Authority), seeking permission to re-open for curb side, delivery and electronic orders, Mr Albury said it seemed as if his company and other Association members "are the only idiots obeying the law" as set out by the Government's latest COVID-19 emergency powers order.

Arguing that there should be one set of rules for all, not two, Mr Albury said the appearance of preferential treatment was present in other economic sectors and not just the auto industry. He cited one fast-food restaurant chain as being open yesterday, even though the sector is supposed to be closed under the present emergency powers, querying how this was fair to its competitors.

Reiterating his previous call for a lockdown 'level playing field' for all sectors and businesses, Mr Albury told this newspaper: "We've [the BMDA] asked to be able to operate as we were before with curb side, delivery, What's App and e-mail orders, adhering to the same health protocols and measures to an even greater extent.

"Yet we see a number of places open and functioning, competitors, with no interference. If you drive around there's a number of them operating; parts, tyres, service. I've had customers call me saying that they need parts, and have to go to another place to install it for them, and I said I can't because we're not allowed to be open.

"It seems the BMDA and its members are the only idiots obeying the law as law-abiding citizens and businessmen.... It's really getting to the point of frustration. It's really frustrating. We're obeying the rules and no one else is obeying the rules."

The Bahamas Bus and Truck chief said the parts and services elements of auto dealers' operations, and transportation in general, should be treated as an "essential service" because they were vital to keeping vehicle fleets belonging to food stores and water depots on the road amid the lockdown.

"We had government offices contacting us for essential parts, and we had to turn them away," Mr Albury added. "It's unbelievable. I don't understand the Government's approach. It seems certain people are able to function as they please, and others are shut down.

"It's such a backwards approach. There's no rhyme or reason. There's no logic. It doesn't make any sense. We're at a very high point of frustration. I don't know what to do at this point."

Mr Albury voiced fears that Bahamas Bus and Truck was in danger of losing many long-standing customer relationships that the company had spent years building up due to the fact it was complying with the COVID-19 lockdown while others were not or had been granted exemptions. And he warned that the opening "inequality" was "building animosity" in many quarters.

"It's really getting to a boiling point," he told Tribune Business. "The uneven way it's being done, I don't see how much longer we can take it. There's an easy business model that allows us to function and be safe. They [the Government] seem intent on destroying businesses that have been built up over a generation. It's unbelievable that they're conducting themselves the way they are.

"They seem to be on a different run. There's no regard for the small man or business. If they're going to lockdown everybody, and everybody is in the same boat, I can understand that and go along with it. We will all do our part. But to have certain people obeying the law, and other people consistently breaking the law and operating with impunity, I can't swallow that.

"It's going to come down to a point where we decide to break the law like everyone else, or continue doing what we're doing. It doesn't make any sense. None of this makes any sense. I can tell you right now the frustration level is through the roof. I'm really at the point where I don't know what to do."

Rick Lowe, the BMDA's secretary, yesterday confirmed to Tribune Business that the Association's re-opening request had been sent to the Prime Minister's Office on Tuesday. He backed up Mr Albury's concerns by naming two auto-related service businesses that appeared to be open as normal, adding that members wanted to re-open "like a bunch of our competitors. The list goes on".

This newspaper decided against naming the companies involved, but Mr Lowe said: "It really leaves you in a bind." He added that he had to go into his dealership's offices yesterday to obtain emergency vehicle parts for Royal Bank of Canada and Bahamas Wholesale Agencies (BWA), highlighting the importance of keeping critical services vehicles on the road.

"Essential services need their vehicles; they need parts," Mr Lowe added. "This is part of what we suggested. The workers still classified as essential businesses need their cars and parts.

"We just have to figure out a way to live with COVID-19. I don't know what else to do but you cannot keep shutting people down. A business is not a money pit that can keep paying, paying, paying without sales.

"It's discouraging and is becoming quite depressing actually. You have staff who are dependent on the company. If every time there's a spike in cases there's going to be a lockdown, we're in trouble."

Mr Albury, meanwhile, questioned whether the Government was in touch with reality, adding that "the misery index is through the roof" with at least 40 percent of the Bahamian workforce estimated to be unemployed and 110,000 persons - more than one out of every four Bahamians - receiving food assistance.

"They don't grasp it. They don't feel what the common man feels. They haven't taken a salary cut and continue to feed their families," he added. "We were promised science and metrics, and I don't think what we've seen up to this point has been decided by that. It's been decided by knee jerk and reactionary measures, not proactive ones, which are taken day-by-day and minute-by-minute.

"The Prime Minister is far detached from the reality of what's going on. The solution can't be to lock everybody down. The virus is here and is not going anywhere. It cannot be a blanket approach. The Government has got to become a lot more innovative and creative."

The Bahamas Bus and Truck chief called for businesses with online ordering, purchasing and payment capabilities, plus those offering drive through and take away functions, to continue to operate to preserve at least some economic activity during the pandemic.

And, while his dealership had paid staff throughout the COVID-19 crisis to-date, he said he did not know "what will happen" if the lockdown is extended beyond next Tuesday, August 18. Mr Albury said the economic and mental health fall-out, plus the increase in domestic, sexual and other forms of abuse, would likely be "the real epidemic" facing The Bahamas over the long-term.

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