‘Everybody’s hurting’

Three months after the closing of the Nassau Straw Market on Bay Street, some straw vendors say they are hurting and anxious about the future.

The market closed as part of the government’s measures to stem the spread of COVID-19.

Tedistine Rolle, 33, said government assistance has been important for her to be able to keep food on the table for her nine-year-old daughter, but with no cruise ships set to dock in Nassau in the foreseeable future, she does not know how to move forward.

“[It’s] very scary because it’s about 400 vendors just waiting to hear when we will return to work and what the outcome will be,” she said yesterday.

“The majority of our customers and revenue comes from the cruise ships, so with the ships not coming in it’s gonna be a major setback for us – slower days when we return to work and less income.

“Hopefully that’s not the case because we depend on the cruise ship passengers for an overflow.”

The straw market closed in March as The Bahamas recorded its first case of COVID-19 and the global tourism industry came to a near halt.

While the country’s borders are set to reopen on July 1 to people with negative COVID tests, it remains unclear when the straw market will reopen. Downtown is expected to remain relatively empty, as cruise ships are not expected to return until September at the earliest.

Matthew Gordon said he has been a vendor at the market for more than 20 years, but he hasn’t seen times as tough as they are now. He said that while his children are older, he is most concerned about those with young children.

“Everybody is hurting,” he said.

Gordon added, “Everything now is just in limbo.

“…I can only imagine how some folks are doing. You’re right here and ain’t nothing happening for yourself. You’ve only got God’s grace.

“It’s tough. It’s really tough.”

Rolle said only God has gotten her through the recent hard times.

“Three months at home wasn’t easy but I thank God every day for life, health and strength,” she said.

“When you are used to getting up and going out and hustling making daily money, it’s not easy to adjust being confined to your home with little or no income.

“The government assistance was a big help to many of the straw vendors, so that lightened the load a bit and helped to pay a few bills or keep groceries in our homes. So, that was a good help for the eight weeks we received it.”

The government initially made in excess of $10 million available to be disbursed through the National Insurance Board (NIB), to self-employed workers in the tourism industry and other self-employed Bahamians impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Earlier this week Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis announced that the assistance is being extended from 13 weeks to 26 weeks.

However, some vendors who spoke with The Nassau Guardian said they have not received any payments for the past month.

“We were given assistance every two weeks for eight weeks, but that has been stopped now for the last four weeks,” Rolle said.

“They promised an extension to July 1, but we are still awaiting the process. So hopefully that comes through soon. They also talked about [another] extension, so we will have to see how it all plays out but for now, the assistance was on hold.”

Brenda Ferguson, 79, said that while the assistance from the government has been good, it’s not enough to pay bills long-term.

“No, darling, you can’t pay your bills with that,” she said.

“Right now I thank God I have a credit card. What the government gives you, you can’t pay your bills with that. But it’s something for you to buy something to eat.”

Ferguson, who said she has worked in the straw market since she was a young girl, said she remains optimistic.

“God will make a way somehow,” she said.

“That’s my belief.”

Minister of Public Works Desmond Bannister said last week that the Straw Market Authority (SMA) has already lost over $165,000 in rental income for the year and expects to lose more, even when the markets reopen.

Bannister said that while rent will not be waived for vendors once the markets reopen, the SMA is preparing for the fact that many vendors may not be able to pay rent.

“Practically, we must attempt to address the real possibility that vendors may not be in a financial position to pay rent,” he said.

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