An eerie stillness fell over downtown Nassau yesterday as COVID-19’s stranglehold on the local and international economies tightened amidst a worsening pandemic and mounting uncertainty over how long it will last.
Business along the usually bustling Bay Street slowed to a trickle, with some merchants shuttering their establishments and others preparing to do so.
Some have decided to hobble along as long as they can with a skeletal staff.
This is the rainy day we have all been warned to save for.
It has an apocalyptic feel as it strains health systems and shocks economies all over the globe.
Yesterday, downtown stores were empty.
Taxi drivers sat in their vehicles staring or chatting; jitneys were lined off, some empty, others with just a few passengers; the straw market was quiet as many vendors had packed up by 1 p.m. and left empty-handed; and restaurants that serve locals and visitors saw very little activity.
The city’s energy has been zapped. The mood that permeated the area was somber.
And no one, absolutely no one, had a clue when things would get better.
While cruise passengers coming to the Port of Nassau are not generally big spenders, their dollars keep these businesses afloat.
In 2019, 10,400 cruise passengers a day came to Nassau, and 10,000 per day came in 2018, according to the Ministry of Tourism.
On March 13, 2020, the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) announced that several major cruise lines, including Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Norwegian and MSC, will voluntarily suspend sailing operations to and from U.S. ports for 30 days due to the pandemic.
Nassau Cruise Port Ltd. recently pointed out in a press statement that Disney also suspended its sailings through the end of March.
Yesterday, we counted three ships in port, but as the press statement noted, the ships were expected to contain “a relatively small number of crew members who will spend this time here in port”.
The effects of the cruise shutdown are clearly just beginning.
Standing outside Breitling Boutique on Bay Street yesterday afternoon, store manager Kevin Hanna had his arms folded as other store workers stood around quietly passing the time.
“We have seen this before where it was a ghost town, but of course we have never seen the wide spread of a virus that closed down Bay Street,” Hanna told National Review.
“…We’re prepared for it in the sense of our mindset. [We are waiting to see] how well it’s going to go based on the decisions the government makes in the near future. We’re not sure. We’re still uneasy, we’re still waiting.”
In his national address on COVID-19 on Sunday night, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis said Minister of Finance Peter Turnquest will address the economic and fiscal aspects of this crisis in more detail in the House of Assembly today.
“He will outline a number of the measures we are taking to deal with the tremendous economic impact of this crisis,” Minnis said. “The minister of tourism and aviation will also give a communication in the House of Assembly.”
Like the rest of the country, many who earn their living directly from tourism are anxiously waiting to hear what Turnquest and other government officials have to say today.
The Bahamas has only recorded one case of COVID-19 so far, but health officials believe community spread is taking place as the 61-year-old victim has no recent history of travel.
Many expect things to get worse before they get better once again in The Bahamas.
“Bills still have to be paid, so I want to know if the government is going to help because you put something up for a rainy day, but [not] everybody is making that kind of money to put it up for rainy days, and how long will it last? I know they won’t be able to say how long it will last,” said Sherise Taylor, who manages Greg’s Deli on George Street.
“I’m hopeful, but what about those who didn’t put [something] up for rainy days? And so, it’s going to become a little scary. I don’t know if landlords are going to be lenient with people who are staying in their apartments. I don’t pay rent, but I still have kids to feed.”
Taylor said the popular deli will close its doors until further notice.
“That’s without pay because we can’t pay the staff if we don’t have the money to pay the staff,” she said.
“For the cruise ships and everything to stop for a month it’s really scary because we have to consider our own bills as workers when it comes to rent and everything else. Soon we won’t be concerned about the virus because we are going to be concerned about how we’re going to survive, how are we going to eat.”
Rebecca Small, a third generation straw vendor who has been in the Nassau Straw Market since she was five years old, said vendors are currently experiencing a “complete drought”.
“We are waiting anxiously for [Wednesday] to hear what the minister has to say as it relates to what they are planning to do, so we are waiting on that, but as you can see, 90 percent of the vendors are out of here,” Small said.
“They were here, they just left. [No money] is making. The market hours are 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. and I generally leave at 8 p.m., but I’m not going to do that today, so it’s a concern.”
Small spoke to National Review at 2 p.m. She said she opened her stall at 11:30 a.m. and had not yet made a dollar.
“Does the government have anything [planned] for persons like us who are self-employed?” she wondered.
“Do they have a strategy or a plan to say ‘if you are not able to work for a month or two months, or one week or whatever, you could go to [the Department of] Social Services’? We are waiting to hear what they have to say. Some vendors don’t have to, but there are the majority of us as vendors who would need some type of assistance, but we know the country is already burdened from [Hurricane] Dorian, so that’s not to be taken lightly.”
Small and others are bracing for even more difficult times.
“I hope going forward our government does things [differently] because it’s concerning right now as a citizen,” she told us.
“We spend as if there is no tomorrow. Nobody has control over this — nobody has. So then what do you do at this point? You just have to pray and hope for the best.”
Cresswell Chipman, who told us he has been a taxi driver for the last six years, was sitting in his van on Bay Street waiting to see if he would get any more business for the day.
He said while he is used to things being slow in September and October, what they are now witnessing is even worse.
Asked what he is now experiencing, Chipman said, “A major financial setback. I’d say that for sure. It’s different, not expected this time of year because of spring break. We’re used to having good business.”
He said he came out around 9 a.m. and up to 1:30 p.m., he had only made $15.
“That’s it,” Chipman said. “I have to pay the rent. I have to pay the lease for the car.”
While he is concerned about the sharp drop in business, he is not surprised.
“I expected it to happen because of what’s going on,” Chipman said. “You have to be safe. Safety is first. Safety is primary. Everybody is shut down because of the situation, so I understand.”
On the western side of Bay Street, we were struck by the image of Marcus Huyler, a security officer at the entrance of an empty Little Switzerland jewelry store.
Huyler had a cloth tied around his face just under his eyes.
On an ordinary day, this would be an odd and even concerning sight on Bay Street.
But in the world we live in today, this is the new normal, and it is scary for many.
Some other workers along Bay Street and other locals downtown also wore masks and latex gloves.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has advised that masks are effective only when used in combination with frequent hand-cleaning with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.
If you wear a mask, then you must know how to use it and dispose of it properly, WHO has also said.
Health experts have also warned that wearing gloves can actually increase people’s risk of getting the new coronavirus.
We could not help but wonder whether those we saw in the masks and gloves were any safer than anyone else downtown yesterday.
William Romer, who was wearing a mask, is also in the public transportation business.
He told us he has been a bus driver for over 20 years.
“This is the worst it’s been and I think it’s going to get worse in the days to come,” said Romer, who pulled down his mask to talk as he sat in his bus.
“We go to Cable Beach with two, three people, come back with nobody. It’s rough. We burn more gas than we make money. There’s nobody here. The tourists are not traveling. Some of the workers are off, probably took vacation. Let’s pray God we get over this and very soon.”
He added, “All we have to do is to keep cleansing, keep our hands clean, use a lot of alcohol and stuff like that. I got wipes, alcohol in my bus; if my guests want any, I let them have some. We just have to do what we have to do and take it one day at a time.”
Max Hemrajani, a manager at Kay’s Fine Jewelry, is hopeful that things will get better “as soon as possible”.
“It is a difficult time and we are hoping to get over as soon as possible. We are hopeful, yes, and it will change,” Hemrajani told National Review.
“At the end of the day, we are only working here, so we don’t know how long the company can afford to take the situation.”
Asked what was going through his mind given the situation, Hemrajani said, “A lot of things. It’s something crazy that cannot be explained. This is the first time we’ve ever had something like this.”
Hanna, the Breitling Boutique manager, said it is important to remain hopeful when working in tourism and retail.
“We’re always hopeful,” he said.
“One thing you have to realize in sales is sales is an emotional roller coaster ride. There are some great days, some bad days; there are some great months and really, really slow months. If you’re going to stay with sales, you have to be hopeful.”
Even as he expressed concerns about a slowdown in business, Chipman too remained optimistic.
When asked if he was hopeful, he responded: “Of course. I’m a Bahamian, man. It’s more to life than money. If money is your god you’re in trouble.”
One of a handful of visitors on Bay Street yesterday was Sacha Meiller, a German man who said he has been on the island for five days.
He said he is enjoying being in The Bahamas.
Meiller added, “You must be careful, but don’t panic.”