Friday, Jul 10, 2020

Waiting game

In wet dock at the Freeport Harbor on Grand Bahama is the Carnival Magic, pictured, as well as the Carnival Conquest. Carnival is among major cruise lines that have suspended operations from U.S. ports of call for 30 days due to the COVID-19 pandemic. SHARON TURNER

When Hurricane Dorian unleashed its fury on Grand Bahama, commercial cruise travel to the island was suspended for almost two months.

And now six and half months later, the island which has been working to rebound from Dorian’s impact is once again faced with a blow to its economy now that major cruise lines which service the region have temporarily halted sailings due to the impact of COVID-19.

Last Friday, the Cruise Lines International Association (CLA) announced that CLA ocean-going cruise lines were “voluntarily and temporarily suspending cruise ship operations from U.S. ports of call for 30 days as public health officials and the U.S. government continue to address COVID-19”.

Also suspended until April 10 are sailings of the Grand Celebration to Freeport, a Bahamas Paradise Cruises vessel which brings both day passengers and much-needed stopover visitors to the island.

When Perspective visited the Freeport Harbor yesterday, the eerie silence of an industry on pause prevailed, and in wet dock were the Carnival Magic and the Carnival Conquest.

On Saturday, taxi drivers at the harbor were preparing to take their last fares of cruise passengers from the Celebration and shared with us their thoughts, which ranged from shock and concern to hopeful resignation about the inevitability of the decision on the part of the cruise industry.

Kavis Ferguson, a taxi driver of 10 years, said, “It hurts but we expected this to happen in order to control this crazy disease.

“I feel it hard because everybody is still in recovery mode,” he said of the impact for his storm-ravaged island, “and we were just starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel where the boats just started coming back on a regular basis.”

Shaking his head in exasperated wonderment, Sonless Martin offered, “Somber, we feel somber.”

A taxi driver of 12 years, Martin shared his concern about what could occur if Grand Bahama has a COVID-19 outbreak.

“It’s just a wait and see right now,” he reasoned. “If we come to work and there is nothing to do, we’ve got to find something else to do — if there is something else to do — because if this island is locked down with a quarantine, we would have to stay home as well.”

For Lakezia Rolle, an officer in the Grand Bahama Taxi Union, relying on alternative trades and honing new skills will be her mainstay until the cruise lines recommence sailings to the island.

“This has taken us by surprise because we are still in the midst of Dorian devastation and we are trying to cope,” she said with a calm sigh as though working to take in the gravity of the situation.

“A lot of people are shaken up but I am sharing with my drivers that we are to allow God to be our source, [and] we just have to take the necessary sanitary precautions.”

Sanitary precautions were the punchline of a spontaneous joke among drivers during a moment of levity after one driver stood in close proximity to another.

The towering jokester and 18-year taxi veteran, Brain Finley, became serious as he disclosed his fears about COVID-19 and the impact it could have on tourism and its stakeholders.

“We are at the forefront of the industry as taxi drivers and we are the first persons who meet the guests when they come off the ship so it is really frightening,” he shared.

Finley added, “Sometimes when you come to work you are wondering, but now I drive with my windows open so if anyone coughs, hopefully it will go out the window.”

Like all other drivers we spoke to, everyone expressed hope that a COVID-19 case would not appear in The Bahamas, a hope that was no doubt dashed with yesterday’s announcement of one confirmed case on New Providence.

A short distance away, Celebration passengers Deborah Deming, Tim Munjar and the couple’s two children from Paradise, California, were making their way to their bus en route to a day at the beach, and told us they felt safe on the short voyage to Freeport notwithstanding fears about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Deming revealed, “It was pretty empty [on board]. I think the ones who are really healthy are on the boat and the ones who are not are at home.

“It’s coming no matter where you are,” she surmised, “so you’ve just got to be prepared.”

“We have to regroup”

For a number of businesses on the island, cruise passengers provide the lion’s share of revenue, and for Pirates Cove Zipline and Water Park on Taino Beach, the cruise line suspension will result in the business temporarily closing its operations as it seeks to market offerings to locals.

David Wallace, the operation’s president and CEO, took Perspective on an impromptu tour of the facilities, explaining that the suspension of cruise service was an eventuality his team anticipated.

He noted, “It is going to impact the operations at Pirates Cove greatly; 95 percent of our business here is not only tourism-related but predominantly cruise line-related, because as you know the challenge of Grand Bahama is we do not have a major number of hotel guests flying in.

“Today we will shut our doors and see what we can do along the local standpoint.”

Pirates Cove has 26 permanent employees and approximately 20 vendors and vendor employees.

According to Wallace, 10,500 tourists visited the park in January, which sees admissions of between 6,000 and 14,000 tourists monthly, all of whom travel to the park via tour bus or taxi.

Bringing those guests to the park via tour bus is Forbes Charter which, according to the company’s President Headley Forbes, has 54 employees with whom he will meet this week to discuss the ever-changing developments.

“What the cruise lines did was the best decision,” Forbes asserted. “All of our business comes from cruise passengers [so] we are just going to have to regroup and wait.

“There is nothing, really, we can do but try to stay safe.”

For the government-owned Grand Lucayan property now under a sale agreement with Holistica Destinations, the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbates the island’s existing problems within its tourism plant.

Lucayan Renewal Holdings Chairman Michael Scott said, “Of course the Grand Lucayan is going to suffer as it is a hobbled property.

“I am [hopeful] we turn the corner on this within the next month or two. But like SARS, [MERS] and Ebola, this too will pass.”

Meantime, in response to concerns expressed on the island by employees in the island’s industrial sector about protocols for contact with crew members onboard cargo vessels which travel from around the world, we questioned Health Minister Dr. Duane Sands, who said, “[Crew members] have the same restrictions as visitors.

“We require the International Maritime Declaration; it is reviewed and determines who gets pratique.”

Pratique is permission granted to a ship to have dealings with a port.

Panic shopping

It was a virtual ghost town of a scene Saturday afternoon at the Port Lucaya Marketplace which sits across the street from the Grand Lucayan.

Straw market vendors sat and talked amongst themselves while others were preparing to close up for the day.

One such vendor, Dell Whyms, greeted us with a warm smile and joked that though “we are not supposed to shake hands”, she would offer us a handshake anyway.

“I’m fine with the [cruise suspensions] because it is to protect us and this is a lesson that we need to learn how to save,” she replied to our questions, pointing out that she has been in the business part-time since 1994 and entered her stall full time two years ago after ending her 18-year career at the Grand Lucayan.

“I’m not so much worried about the virus but the aftermath that will come,” Whyms explained, “because if it comes here and we shut down, how will we make it if nothing is coming in? That is my biggest fear.”

Steps away, Antoinette Smith, who spoke with us in a previous interview, briskly offered “we don’t like it”, as her response to the cruise line developments, but she quickly softened to share a more sober perspective.

With a can of Lysol spray conspicuously in the background, Smith stated, “Business just started to pick up and we were looking forward to making some money but there is nothing that you can do.

“Just like how we came through Dorian, this too will pass,” she said assuredly. “I was home for three months after the storm so it’s the same thing and in Matthew my entire stall got wiped out and I was home for six months.

“I’m not stopping my life because of this; you’ve still got to go on.”

Going on without cruise business for now is what long-time vendor Don told us he is fully prepared to do, as he would rather protect his health than make a few dollars during this period.

“Everybody has to re-adjust and nobody wants to get sick,” Don stressed. “I had been in hospital for a while and I don’t need to go back there [so] let me take my 30 days and wait it out.”

He recalled, “How we just had a hurricane, I don’t want to go through any more pain [and] if people are dying from [COVID-19], I don’t need to close my eyes to it.”

It was a slow day at Freeport Jewelers as workers prepared to close, with Manager Loren Madu telling us that the effect of the cruise passenger fall-off could already be felt at the establishment which will now look to run marketing campaigns to attract local shoppers.

“It is going to impact the business greatly,” she maintained. “In Grand Bahama, Bahamians are occasion shoppers [and] with the tourists coming in every day there’s a greater chance of us making more money.”

She added, “We can feel the effects of it already coupled with the hotel because we were never really up with business flowing the way it used to be before, and it won’t be until this hotel opens.

“A customer that stays overnight is always a better customer who can think about that big purchase and sleep on it,” Madu pointed out, “but if you have to make a decision in five minutes, you’re not likely to do it so we always prefer the overnight passenger.”

Throughout Freeport, there were long lines and shopping carts filled with bottles of bleach, water, non-perishables and bundles of toilet paper, as “coronavirus” could be heard in conversations throughout grocery stores.

But the panic shopping for some has deeper roots, as Grand Bahamians still scarred by the death and destruction of Dorian have not yet evolved from a heightened sense of alert, particularly since hurricane season is less than three months away.

A stock shop worker at one of the island’s popular stores told us some locals seem to be a bit paranoid, sharing that one customer came into the store three times in a single day, worried that she had not purchased enough items to stockpile ahead of whatever COVID-19 would bring.

What stakeholders on Grand Bahama are hoping for is that the island can remain COVID-19 free, and that cruise lines do not extend their suspensions beyond their announced 30-day time frame.

Until then, all they can do is prepare, pray and wait.

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