Mariaan Gonzales

BACK IN BUSINESS: Mariaan Gonzales, a custodian at D’Dial Fitness Club, Long Circular Mall, sanitises an exercise machine yesterday for today’s the opening of the gym. —Photo: ISHMAEL SALANDY

SOME business stakeholders have issued a strong call to Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley to reconsider the continued closure of bars and restaurants, saying yesterday those Covid-19 restrictions lifted at the weekend “make no economic sense”.

Restaurateur Peter George and the Bar Owners’ Association of Trinidad and Tobago (BOATT) were among those expressing frustration with the decision to return public servants to work this week and open some sectors at 50 per cent capacity - including gyms and churches - but to keep bars closed and retain “no dining” rules for restaurants.

Rowley also last Saturday announced that beaches will be open to the public from today and cinemas may open at 50 per cent capacity but the sale of food is not allowed.

Rowley said the public’s reaction to the ease on restrictions, in terms of its willingness to comply with Covid-19 health regulations, will be closely monitored in the coming fortnight and previous limitations reinforced, if virus numbers begin to rise.

‘People are hurting’

Businessman Peter George, proprietor of several well-known restaurants including Trotters in Maraval and Buzo, told the Express yesterday that while respect was due to several aspects of the Government’s handling of the pandemic, Trinidad and Tobago’s economic worries have been further complicated by Covid-19 and deep financial strain has begun to haunt average citizens.

George further asserted that while not disparaging the efforts of the medical experts, the public health officials issuing directives to the Government, including Chief Medical Officer Dr Roshan Parasram and Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh, were perhaps unaware of the strain of having to let go of staff.

“My business is about people and people are hurting,” George said.

Noting the change in restrictions, George said it was a welcome move “but was not taking place within sectors that generate revenue”.

George was among those to shut his business doors just before Government’s first announcement of a country-wide lockdown in March, and he noted yesterday that that move was based on his perception of the virus as a serious threat at the time.

The restaurants later reopened for curbside service only and George said he remained open for the sake of staff. Eight months on, however, a decision has been made to close due to unsustainable sales and George is placing it before Government that the decision keep restrictions against entertainment and hospitality will be the death of those sectors and not Covid-19.

“It is clear that we are not looking at the problem through the lens of Trinidad and Tobago,” George said, adding that the sectors may not recover in the foreseeable future.

“I am not sure how much faith I have in Dr Parasram and Minister Deyalsingh at this stage of the game...maybe in March and April, not eight months later, to be portending the socio-economic future of the country,” George said.

“They have no skin in the game,” he added.

People in entertainment and hospitality are “decimated”, he said, adding: “People have burnt up all their savings and have been thrown in the fire pit and basically told, close your business, grab a life jacket and good luck.”

George called the Government’s pandemic relief programme, which included salary and rent relief for those whose incomes were directly affected, “hapless” and said “if Parasram and Deyalsingh were concerned about public health, what about the dilapidated state of the public healthcare system”.

George added:

“Good leadership is courageous leadership.”

BOATT: No clear economic plans

Where is the compassion?

This was the question yesterday from the Bar Owners’ Association, as it also questioned social and economic logic behind Saturday’s partial lifting of restrictions.

“Politicians must encourage participation, conversation and engagement with the population, to miss this point would doom us to irrelevance,” BOATT public relations officer, Anil Maraj, told the Express.

“That’s the feeling of The Barkeepers and Operators Association of Trinidad and Tobago, that we are irrelevant and the over 20,000 employees in this sector mean nothing.”

Maraj echoed the anxieties of hospitality stakeholders around the country, saying BOATT was “concerned that the further extension of measures will further exacerbate our financial strain”. “As a result, the industry will not be able to sustain operations,” he said.

“The day-to-day lives of our employees are adversely affected more so now than ever as more businesses will shut their doors. We anticipate further job loss, citizens won’t be able to pay for basic amenities or put food on the table.”

There was also concern over the mental state of the sector’s employees, he said, who have been “demoralised and diminished as a sense of doom and gloom now prevail over their heads”.

“All this while the Health Minister keeps saying, ‘We are in a good place’,” Maraj said. “How can this be a good place?”

He said while the business sector continues to be decimated, citizens are allowed to congregate at the beach in droves with the only guidelines being don’t go to the same beach at the same time.

“The training, the implementation of Covid safety protocols and recommendations for living in the ‘New Normal’ given by the association seem to be irrelevant,” he said.

“The economy continues to deteriorate with no clear economic plans being put forward to pull the country out of turmoil. We are going down a slippery slope and steering towards an abyss of economic nothingness.”

Taxi-drivers hopeful

And while taxi and maxi-drivers were disappointed at not being allowed to return to full capacity, several said yesterday they were looking forward to more commuters as of today.

“With public servants coming back out, we will get some improvement, in that we were simply not getting the passengers these past months,” one Chaguanas/Port of Spain route taxi-driver stated.

“Many drivers were not working because it was taking too long to get passengers and then you have to spend for gas to make a trip. So we may see some improvement there but we are still at 75 per cent capacity, so there may now be a back up of passengers on some days.”

In Chaguanas and Port of Spain, retail shops of variety goods and market vendors were also hopeful and viewed the return of public servants as a relief.

“We are hoping to get back the evening crowd and see a return of the sales we usually get just before closing time,” one Port of Spain retailer said.

Duke threatens

legal action

Public Services Association (PSA) president Watson Duke has in the meantime threatened to take legal action against the Prime Minister for “wilfully” endangering the lives of public servants.

In a Facebook post yesterday, Duke accused Rowley of sending public servants back to work without warning and without proper provisions to ensure their safety in the midst of the pandemic.

He said public servants were protected by the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH), while children were protected by the Children’s Act.

Duke said he intends to engage a series of lawyers for advice as to whether the move by the PM was legal, or whether it violates the OSH Act.

He criticised Rowley for telling public servants to return to work and observe the Covid-19 public health regulations.

The PSA president said he will seek advice as to whether Rowley could be placed on “some type of a charge” for “endangering lives” and will also ask public servants with children under the age of 16 to pen their concerns to the PSA.

Duke had two weeks ago warned the PM against comments made about public servants during a Covid-19 news conference, where Rowley accused some civil servants of ducking work.

The PM, who in August also got into hot water for calling the public service unproductive, said this month public servants were abusing the rotation system put in place to minimise risk of the spread of Covid-19.

Rowley said this was causing reduced efficiency and warned anyone caught abusing the system would not be paid.