Wed | Jul 8, 2020

Are we ready for June 1? - Several sectors still reeling from COVID-19 hit, employers await gov’t protocol

Published:Monday | June 1, 2020 | 12:07 AMLivern Barrett and Jovan Johnson - Senior Staff Reporters
GraceKennedy CEO Don Wehby.
An overhead view of the Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay, St James.
File An aerial shot of the Riu Ocho Rios.

THE ANDREW Holness led-Cabinet is expected to determine tomorrow whether it will bow to pressure from tourism and other industry interests to abandon the long-term phased and full reopening of the economy despite protests from health officials.

Full restrictions on bars, churches and entertainment have been proposed to be lifted on July 1; border openings for Jamaicans on August 1 and tourism on October 1, according to confidential government documents obtained by The Sunday Gleaner.

So far, most of the announced relaxations to date have matched the proposals including the ‘phased re-entry’ from May to July, the reduced curfew hours and today’s lifting of the work-from-home order. But variations so far, we have been told, depart from public health recommendations.

Now the attention is on the opening of the borders for returning Jamaicans and leisure travellers. An early date of June 4 is reportedly being contemplated for starting to welcome Jamaicans. Current border restrictions expire today, but the economic recovery task force has recommended the phased opening of the airports to citizens.

Cabinet must now decide when Jamaica can start accepting tourists and whether to do so earlier than the October 1 proposal as aviation, tourism and other private sector interests increase their pressure for an earlier start. Already, Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett has indicated that a summer resumption – June-August – is being worked on.

Health Minister Dr Christopher Tufton has reportedly been butting heads with industry interests, urging them to hold strain until the numbers of active coronavirus cases decline significantly and key infrastructure is in place to facilitate mass hospitalisation, if necessary.

With quarantines among the highly recommended protocol to contain the spread of the coronavirus globally, such a measure could come in conflict with tourism operations, which brings into focus the need for established guidelines as the industry reopens. Those guidelines are reportedly at least 90 per cent ready and should be submitted to the Government this week.

Holness in a pickle

One of the challenges facing the authorities in tourism is about testing and what to do if a visitor returns a positive test on arrival or even displays COVID-19 symptoms just before travelling to Jamaica.

Some of these issues, including whether visitors will get refunds, were raised in the April 30 draft of the tourism protocol obtained by The Sunday Gleaner. Hotels and attractions will also be expected to get mandatory certifications from the health and tourism ministries before operating.

Trackers are being proposed for tourism transportation vehicles, along with a review of port fees to accommodate the reduced carrying capacity of cars and buses.

The prime minister is in a real “pickle”, a senior government source said, because the bad economic forecasts compel quick action, but it has to be balanced with health concerns.

“The Government knows it’s a huge risk,” the administration source added.

Last week, the Planning Institute of Jamaica projected a 12-14 per cent economic contraction for the April-June quarter because of the COVID-19 fallout. The Government has also estimated the gross domestic product to decline this year by 5.1 per cent. A new Budget has been tabled showing significant spending cuts and reallocation to match the fallout in revenues.

The Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association’s voice is also growing louder with its president, Omar Robinson, insisting that the more than 300,000 workers in the sector need to go back to work. The Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica has also telegraphed its impatience.

Holness has not shied away from the dire economic situation facing the country even as he signalled the struggle inside his administration to push for full economic rejuvenation amid health concerns.

“We don’t want to survive the pandemic and die in the recession,” he told journalists at last week’s post-Cabinet meeting.

Sandals Resorts International, one of the largest hotel chains in the region, has been advertising a June 4 resumption date for most of its operations.

RIU Hotels and Resorts disclosed on Friday that it has already drafted a range of protocols that will guide operations at all its properties even as it awaits the guidelines being developed by Jamaican health authorities.

Niurka Garcia Linton, RIU’s director of sales for Jamaica, said the internal protocols offer specific and practical solutions for all the different areas of the hotels.

“We understand that earning the market’s trust will be paramount as we move forward. Therefore, guaranteeing the health and safety of our staff and guests alike is our priority,” Garcia Linton said in an email response to questions from The Sunday Gleaner.

Though it remains unclear when Jamaica’s borders will reopen to incoming passengers, regional carrier, Caribbean Airlines (CAL), told The Sunday Gleaner that it will be ready to go “once provided with adequate notice and clear guidelines” by Jamaican authorities.

Dionne Ligoure, head of corporate communications at CAL, disclosed that the Trinidad and Tobago-based airline has already developed internal protocols that will include social distancing, thermal scanning, the wearing of personal protective equipment and the sanitisation of aircraft “at every port”.

Most employers not ready

Readiness among local employers appears is not optimal as the Jamaica Employers’ Federation (JEF) is reporting that up to 80 per cent of its members have indicated that they are not fully compliant with the guidelines established by the health ministry or to bring back all employees.

The cost to reconfigure businesses, establishing sanitisation stations and other minimum requirements emerged in the telephone survey as one of the main issues impacting employers, particularly small and medium sized businesses, David Wan, president of the JEF, shared.

“The large companies have no problem finding the resources. The small and medium enterprises just don’t have the resources to completely reconfigure inside their offices all at once,” said Wan, suggesting that full compliance for these entities would “take a more gradual approach”.

Not like flipping a switch

Norman Walker, president of the Sunshine City Chamber of Commerce, painted a grim picture for small business owners in the Portmore Mall, who were forced to close their doors under the “onslaught” caused by the various COVID-19 containment measures.

“To restart is not like the flip of a switch,” Walker said. “For those of us who got hit hard, who have had to close, who continue to struggle, it’s not going to be easy, albeit that we are going back to some semblance of normalcy.”

He continued: “Some have been affected by bank loans and suppliers’ crisis, so even though the time is coming up again to relax [the COVID containment measures], the challenge has not gone away.”

GraceKennedy, the food and financial conglomerate which employs close to 2,000 persons, says it will not mandate a full return to work for all employees.

“What we are going to be doing is operating on a rotation basis where no more than half of the staff should be in any one of our offices at any one time,” said CEO Don Wehby.

With day-care centres still closed, Wehby said GraceKennedy will allow parents to continue working from home.

The state-owned bus company, Jamaica Urban Transit Company, has signalled that it will be ready to deal with the expected increase ridership, but cautioned that its operations will be severely hampered if the Government leaves in place an order that buses carry seated passengers only.

“We will not have sufficient buses … if you can only put 25 people in a bus. You can do the maths yourself and figure out that there will be a challenge,” the company said.