The BVI Chamber of Commerce and Hotel Association is making recommendations to government about ways to help businesses deal with layoffs, closures and revenue shortfalls. (File photo: JOEY WALDINGER)

Since the BVI Chamber of Commerce and Hotel Association’s Business Task Force first met on March 19, the group has sent the government five letters with situation reports and recommendations for mitigating the economic fallout of the Covid-19 crisis.

“At present, no acknowledgement of receipt or response has been received,” the chamber claimed in an Aug. 19 press release about the letters, which it says were addressed to Premier Andrew Fahie, Health and Social Development Minister Carvin Malone and the cochairs of the government’s Economic and Fiscal Task Force.

The chamber added that since its last letter to the government on June 24, “The VI’s domestic economy is approaching two months since entering a recovery stage and is poised for further sustainable economic activity beyond the response initiatives that will fuel the economic recovery and development in the difficult days ahead.”

Recommendations

The press release — which was issued before the recent resurgence of Covid-19 was discovered — included excerpts from four of the five letters to government.

The letters provided various recommendations, some of which have since been implemented through the government’s stimulus package rolled out in late May, including Social Security Board-funded unemployment benefits, business grants and relief from utility bills.

However, much of the other advice was not followed. In the June 24 letter, the chamber proposed a two-stage reopening to tourists beginning July 20 with yachts and accommodations on the sister islands.

Visitors, the chamber advised, could be asked to submit Covid-19 test results a minimum of 48 hours before arrival or to be tested on arrival and “self-quarantine” for up to 14 days. The second stage would begin Sept. 1, with all visitors pre-cleared by submitting test results in advance.

“This will give adequate time for industry stakeholders to start planning from now for operational health and safety modifications, ramp up marketing; and the airlines to reinstate the routes,” the chamber wrote on June 24.

The most recent plan is for borders to reopen to work permit holders and other residents on Tuesday with a mandatory 14-day quarantine, though it is unclear if this plan has changed in light of the recent resurgence of cases.

Still no reply

The government has not outlined a timeline for opening to visitors, but on Aug. 17 Mr. Malone said the BVI Tourist Board, the financial services industry, the yachting industry, the construction industry and “all participating partners are convening to determine a sustainable approach to opening our borders and return to a sense of normalcy.”

However, Keiyia Jackson-George, executive director of the BVICCHA, confirmed on Tuesday that the chamber still had not received a reply to its letters. Messrs. Fahie and Malone did not respond to the Beacon’s requests for comment. In light of Tuesday’s new curfew order, Ms. Jackson-George said, “We are meeting to determine if our message should change.”

Other recommendations

In its first two letters, the chamber also urged government to “clear outstanding bills with businesses to provide an injection of capital, albeit for services provided already, to help businesses keep their doors open.”

The letter especially highlighted the issue of late payments by the National Health Insurance programme to medical services providers, but asked that payments be made to all businesses.

“It is unconscionable to ask employers to hold on to their employees without a source of revenue or some type of assistance. We could very well see a situation where temporary closures become permanent,” the chamber wrote.

It also recommended fine-tuning the definition of “essential businesses” allowed to remain open during limited lockdowns to include restaurants and elements of the marine sector.

Andrew Ball, vice chairman of the Marine Association of the Virgin Islands, has noted a similar lack of communication from government that he said may discourage marine businesses from investing or operating in the territory.

“Nobody’s said, ‘Okay, this is our plan,’ and, to be honest, it’s very difficult to set those targets,” Mr. Ball said last week on BVICCHA Chairwoman Shaina Smith’s talk show “Vigilate Dialogues.” “But nobody’s even said, ‘Hey, we’re considering your needs and we haven’t forgotten about you.”

At least one charter yacht company has closed its doors already, and another has seen about a quarter of its yachts leave the territory, he said, though he didn’t identify the companies.

“We’re not in a good place at all,” he continued. “And what we really need is to be able to sit at the table and discuss solutions.”

According to the chamber’s press release, restaurants, too, “have been one of the first industries impacted by the pandemic restrictions and without revenue over the last two months. They are now on a fiscal cliff.”

In its second letter, on April 26, the chamber recommendedthat “to mitigate the uncertainty that has been apparent after briefings” the organisation be given membership on the government’s Economic and Fiscal Task Force or the Health Emergency Operations Centre, in part to help determine what qualifies as an essential business.

Alternatively, the chamber recommended that a business liaison officer be identified in the HEOC or Premier’s Office.

According to Ms. Jackson-George, neither request was accommodated. The restaurant industry was again discussed in a letter sent on May 20, which outlined the types of economic assistance required by the hospitality industry.

These included access to capital in the form of low- to no-interest loans guaranteed by government, tax and duty exemptions on new Covid-19 supplies, and suspension of payroll taxes for up to one year.

The chamber also suggested developing “an aggressive marketing plan and campaign to boost local tourism” and a plan to “repurpose and retrain hospitality workers to help with disaster preparedness, readiness and recovery efforts.”

“As a business community, we understand that this is a time of sacrifice for all of us as a society and we are committed to doing our part,” the chamber wrote.


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