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Bracing for impact

Straw vendor Celestine Eneas speaks with National Review on Monday. RACARDO THOMAS

Close to the entrance of the Nassau Straw Market on Bay Street, Chris Ferguson sat with his mother at her stall late Monday afternoon. He had his supply of hand sanitizer and a bag of oranges.

They are bracing for coronavirus, which is sweeping the globe, causing illness and death and creating widespread shock to economies.

The International Air Transportation Association recently projected that coronavirus could cause a loss of $113 billion in airline sales if it continues to spread.

The U.S. State Department, meanwhile, has warned American citizens not to travel by cruise ship as the situation worsens.

For places like The Bahamas that depend on cruise passengers, that announcement was not unexpected, but it is worrying.

“We are anticipating a ripple effect,” said Ferguson as he squeezed sanitizer out then rubbed his hands briskly.

“We anticipate business to be slowed down tremendously. However, health is our number one concern. This is how my mother makes her livelihood, so we have to be here.

“So we take our precaution, hand sanitizer, that type of stuff. Dealing with money, we don’t want to wear the latex gloves yet because we don’t want to offend anybody, but trust me, health is more important to us now than making a few dollars.”

Ferguson added, “It’s everywhere now.

Chris Ferguson.

“The thing now is we’re being told to procure water and food and stuff, because it’s going to hit The Bahamas and this is one of the main ports of entry to The Bahamas.

“The Bahamas Straw Market, this is where they (tourists) come. Ninety-nine percent of them come to the straw market, so we’re going to have a dose of everything.”

Yesterday, Jamaican officials confirmed their first case of the novel coronavirus, which started in Wuhan, China, late in 2019.

The Jamaica Gleaner shared a video on social media showing a rush on supermarkets since the announcement of a coronavirus case in Jamaica.

Ferguson said he and his mother have cut back on inventory as they expect fewer customers in the Nassau market.

“We’re just going to try sell off what we have now,” he said. “We know we are going to go into a financial crisis when this does impact our nation.”

The Dominican Republic has already reported its first two cases and in Florida, the number of cases continues to grow.

Bahamas Minister of Health Dr. Duane Sands has said it’s not a matter of “if” but “when” The Bahamas sees its first case.

Big business

In 2019, 5.4 million cruise visitors came to The Bahamas, representing the bulk of visitor arrivals, although the air segment is high-value.

In its January economics and financial developments report, the Central Bank stated that activity in the tourism sector remained positive, albeit moderated, during the review period.

Official data provided by the Ministry of Tourism (MOT) revealed that total foreign arrivals for the month of December 2019 rose by 5.3 percent, but was below the 10 percent growth recorded in the prior year.

Specifically, the sea segment grew by 8.9 percent, following a growth of 9.2 percent in 2018.

In The Bahamas, tourism matters. While it is those on the front lines who would be the first to physically witness a fall-off in tourist arrivals due to crises, most throughout the economy would likely feel it.

“This is a big concern for everybody,” noted Miriam Wright, who has worked as a straw vendor for as long as she can remember.

Miriam Wright.

“This is our livelihood. We depend on the tourists coming to The Bahamas,” Wright told National Review. “In fact, it should really be everybody’s concern in The Bahamas because tourism is one of our biggest industries. If the tourists are not coming, a lot of people would be out of jobs. We depend on the tourists to shop with us so that we can go in the food stores, we can pay our bills, and so it is a big concern.”

Wright said she expects an economic recession as a result of the epidemic.

“We just have to hope and pray that we can come out of this,” she said. “Bahamians are depending on the tourist dollar to make ends meet. It’s going to be hard. The best we can do is pray.”

She said now is the time to cut back on spending where possible.

“The main things, you continue with that, because it’s important, but a lot of things you will have to cut back on,” said Wright, sitting in front of her stall.

“If we’re not getting the money, we can’t go to the shop and those people in the stores are depending on us. If we’re not making the money, they won’t be able to make money and they won’t be able to shop.”

Sheanda Cooper, another vendor, asked, “If they’re not spending, then where does that leave us?”

She said she is trying to save more.

“Most people at the market live day-to-day, and so I realize now that you have to think differently in the event that it happens, you can take care of yourself,” Cooper said.

“We don’t know how long this will be.”

But she said she does not intend to live in fear.

At a community meeting in Black Point, Exuma, last night, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis urged Bahamians not to panic.

On Monday afternoon, Michael Ferguson, a taxi driver who was sitting in his van in front of Royal Bank of Canada on Bay Street holding a “taxi and tour” sign, indicated that like many other Bahamians, he is worried about what is to come.

But he urged, “We must listen to advice and take heed. If we fail to listen to that advice, then anything can happen.”

He stressed the importance of proper hygiene.

Resilient

AddiBell Curry, who has been in the straw market for more than 50 years, intends to remain positive.

“I believe that in spite of the coronavirus announcement that there will be some who will say, ‘I’m going to give it a chance’,” Curry said.

“And that’s why today, we still see quite a bit of tourists. They’re all friendly. They’re not backing off. No one seems to be concerned about not wearing masks and touching persons. Everyone’s relaxed and comfortable and so I’m relaxed and comfortable too.”

But, like other vendors, she said she intends to be prudent in her spending.

“We have to control our spending, for sure,” Curry said, “because it’s a reality that the coronavirus is out there and it’s causing a change in our economy and so we have to be very much alert in our spending.”

Celestine Eneas has faith that she and others in the industry will hold their own despite the expected hit.

She remembers the challenging times that followed the straw market fire and then September 11 in 2001.

It was a double blow.

While vendors have had hard times before, she said, “we know how to bounce back”.

“We are a resilient people,” said Eneas, 65, who added that she has been in the market since she was four years old.

Asked whether she intends to do anything differently in terms of her spending, she said, “If you don’t make it you can’t spend it, but if you make it you can spend it, and that’s how it is. You have your bills to pay, and once you have your bills to pay and that money is coming in, [you pay].”

At 82, Rebecca Smith has been in the straw market “forever”.

Rebecca Smith.

Smith said she is prayerful in the face of the situation.

“I feel that the Lord is not going to allow it to come to our shores and that the Lord has us covered,” she said. “That’s the way I really, really feel.”

Smith insisted the tourists will still come.

“If only three come, one is coming to me,” she said.

Candia Dames

Candia Dames is the executive editor of the Nassau Guardian.

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