BVI Chamber of Commerce
BVICCHA Offers Pandemic and Economic Recovery Recommendations
Today, we would like to share the tireless work the BVICCHA has been proactively doing on behalf of the business community from the onset of this pandemic, recognizing the perceived economic fallout that would result and the predicted recession that would follow. We pause here to thank the Premier and the Minister of Health and their teams for their early and diligent response to the global pandemic to safeguard our community. We stand in support of public health and safety as the priority and we pledge to safeguard our employees and customers while doing business. As a business community, we understand that this is a time of sacrifice for all us as a society and we are committed to doing our part.
The BVICCHA’s Business Committee that is responsible for advocacy matters formed a Business Task Force and held its first meeting on 19th March. To date, we have submitted five (5) letters with situation reports and recommendations based on what was happening on the ground and the socioeconomic implications predicted to the Premier and copied to the Minister of Health and Co-chairs of the Economic and Fiscal Task Force. At present, no acknowledgement of receipt or response has been received.
Since our last written correspondence dated 24 June 2020, the Virgin Islands’ domestic economy is approaching two (2) months since entering a recovery stage and is poised for further sustainable economic activity beyond the response initiatives that will fuel the economic recovery and development in the difficult days ahead. As was mentioned in all our previous communications, we applaud the Government’s quick response at the onset of the pandemic to safeguard lives and subsequent initiatives for assistance to businesses through grant assistance and unemployment assistance to safeguard livelihoods.
Last week, we hosted a BVICCHA Members meeting and a Business Stakeholder meeting to continue to assess the ground situation and receive feedback from the business community on what the immediate needs are and the medium- and long-term goals for sustainability. The consensus was that it would be beneficial to hear from the Government what the Economic Recovery Plan is that will drive a sustainable economic recovery and that it is important that the plan is developed with input from all stakeholders. There were several challenges in the business environment before the pandemic that were being worked on (e-commerce, digital economic transformation, etc.) and these would also be prioritized in an economic recovery plan to ensure that we truly emerge stronger on the other side of this. Thus, we have invited the Premier to be the keynote speaker at our next Business Stakeholders meeting on 1 September 2020 at 5 pm to dialogues with us about the planning stages and what we can expect in the pipeline.
Below are excerpts from four (4) of the five (5) correspondences to give context to the current situation of advocating for a proactive, collaborative approach to be taken towards the recovery and development of our country. This unified effort (public, business, and the public) is needed to lessen the socioeconomic consequences of unemployment, cost of living increases, permanent business closure, home/property foreclosures and lost tax revenue as the global economic recession deepens and we must use risk-based planning to determine careful next steps to safely do business at a reduced capacity and scale as global conditions improve.
Excerpt from the Letter dated 20 March 2020 - Economic Implications of the COVID-19 Pandemic
- Outstanding payments to the Businesses: As a way to inject stimulus immediately into the economy, the recommended action is for Government to pay outstanding payments due to businesses over the next 90 days, in particular small businesses. An area of immediate concern is the excessive delays in payment by the National Health Insurance to the medical services industry that was putting undue strain on operations before the current crisis and it becomes even more important to ensure our medical sector is able to stay open for business as they are part of the frontline defense.
- Unemployment Benefit: Using the Social Security Board benefit model for the sickness benefit, implement an unemployment benefit for employees who have been laid off due to business closures and pay benefits monthly for the next 90 days. The suggested amount would be the same 66 2/3% of salary last filed. This would ease the pressure on businesses to try to operate without incoming revenue as well as allow for employees to continue to pay their bills, shop, etc. and keep money in circulation in the local economy. This is important as an immediate term action as well as a long term measure to build more resilience into the economy from external shocks such as natural disasters (ex: hurricanes, earthquakes), pandemics, global recession, etc. that we have seen over the last decade can cause economic hardships and have a domino effect across the society regardless of industry.
- Small Business Loans and/ or Grants: We highly recommend that as part of the emergency disaster fund that funds are allocated for economic injury to businesses. For example, the USA SBA offers disaster assistance in the form of low-interest loans to businesses, renters, and homeowners located in regions affected by declared disasters, and this includes physical damage as well as economic injury. Loans are used to cover small business operating expenses after a declared disaster. We propose that the BVICCHA is willing to support the administration of the loan program by helping to screen applicants and the approved businesses would be required to go through business continuity training and financial management seminars coordinated by the Chamber.We propose that the training would be funded annually by the business disaster fund to continually build technical capacity especially in small businesses over the long term and equip them to be more robust in the face of difficult periods which happens in every economy.
- Deferment on public utilities bills: We propose that relief be given to employers and employees in the form of a waiver of electricity and water bills for the next 90 days in the first instance.
- Delivery of Public Services: In light of the remote working of most government offices, we find it necessary to continue to highlight the importance of electronic filing and moving government services online. For example, in the current situation of social distancing and minimal gatherings, an online payment portal would ensure that payments are made in a timely and efficient manner. This would also greatly enhance the delivery of services on the Sister Islands who have minimal public services being offered on island since the 2017 hurricanes and business owners have to travel to Tortola at an added expense in time and money.
- Business Interruption Insurance: One of the measures that the BVICCHA will be coordinating is an initiative that looks at making business disruption insurance more cost-effective to small- and medium enterprise business owners to again ensure that the business sector is robust in economic storms.
- Economic Diversification Strategy: As a long-term strategy, we would like to see the development and implementation of an economic diversification strategy. The BVICCHA will be sending in a proposal for further discussion on this. Between natural and economic disasters in the last decade, it is no longer acceptable for the vulnerabilities in our economy to be tolerated and other industries need to be fostered to reduce vulnerability.
Excerpt from the Letter dated 26 April 2020 - Response to Reopening of the Economy
- To mitigate the uncertainty that has been apparent after briefings, we propose that we are given membership on the Economic and Fiscal Task Force or Health Emergency Operations Centre (HEOC) to offer real-time advice that reflects the needs of the business community. Issues such as the essential businesses list being continually revised after it is issued would be curtailed because we can communicate not only what is being considered as essential services superficially but explain the supply chains that connect all businesses depending on what is being required of us. Ex: hardware & building supply businesses being excluded but the essential businesses needing supplies to implement the public health requirements issued. This would also position us to communicate important information back to businesses to ensure that they are aware and educated.
- In the absence of this, we recommend that a business liaison officer be identified in the HEOC or Premier’s Office that the Chamber can liaise with to receive information from or pose questions for clarification of information issued.
- As was raised on the last Zoom call with Government and Business two weeks ago about coming out of the lockdown, we highlighted that it was important for businesses to be given adequate time to align operations with the public health guidelines and this was not the case in this instance and we are unclear as to the reason why.
- The previous phase 1 plan outlined a 13-hour window for business operations which is important as we now must ensure that our places of business are sanitized and ready for the next business day within the previous day and the current 7-hour window does not offer adequate time as outlined. This also takes into consideration the longer wait times that customers are going to experience due to the restrictions as well as allowing adequate time for businesses to serve the public and still give their employees time to attend to their personal business. We believe this will lessen crowding outside establishments because persons are able to plan their day across a wider window. This also does not benefit businesses as the revenue to expense ratio for that day puts us in further difficulty financially.
- In the absence of economic assistance thus far, we once again implore the Government to clear outstanding bills with businesses to provide an injection of capital, albeit for services provided already, to help businesses keep their doors open. We highlight again the issue of late payments by NHI to our medical services providers who need revenue to pay their payroll. It is unconscionable to ask employers to hold on to their employees without a source of revenue or some type of assistance. We could very well see a situation where temporary closures become permanent.
- On the matter of the essential businesses, we would like to know how this is defined. We highly recommend that restaurants are considered essential services and allowed to do take-out and delivery as service employees and the public will need sustenance while on the road. These small businesses have been one of the first industries impacted by the pandemic restrictions and without revenue over the last two months, they are now on a fiscal cliff.
- This version of the essential services list also completely omitted the marine sector businesses and this needs urgent attention as was highlighted in my last letter dated 16 April and email dated 19 April 2020. We must be cognizant that our economy is both land and sea-based and should be included in all considerations.
- As we look proactively out over the next 30 days, we would like to know what are the health considerations that small businesses should be considering adapting their businesses to align with the public health guidelines. We believe further guidance is needed from the Environmental Health Department for businesses such as photography studios, spas, nail and hair salons, bookstores and the marine sector on what will be expected of them.
Excerpt from the Letter dated 20 May 2020 – Hospitality Industry Protocols1. Economic Assistance for Business Survival
- Access to capital (low to no interest loans guaranteed by Government, noting that these should be conditions-based).
- Investigate the possibility of setting up a “Factoring” Company, which is a concept used to back restaurant payables.
- Moratorium on commercial loans, up to two (2) years.
- Payroll subsidies or grants to keep employees working.
- Tax and Duty Exemptions on new COVID-19 requirements.
- Suspension of Payroll and HAT Taxes for up to one (1) year.
- Identify a regional supply chain network due to projected shortages of goods from the USA.
- Review and endorse the proposed protocol developed with industry partners and businesses to enhance the restaurant offer, protecting guests, staff, and businesses. (Protocol II was sent.)
- Review and endorse the proposed protocol developed with industry partners and businesses to encourage domestic tourism by enabling the hotels/accommodation sector to operate. (Protocol III was sent.)
- Endorse BVICCHA COVID-19 Employee Training and Testing Model
- Develop an aggressive marketing plan and campaign to boost local tourism and create economic synergy within as planning for the opening of the borders are underway.
- Extend curfew hours to at least 9:00 PM with the view of opening restaurant dine-in services in June 2020.
- Develop an Intra-island Staycation, Respite, and Decompression Programme in partnership with the Accommodation sectors to promote to residents.
- Subsidise intra-island transport to encourage local tourism.
- Empower HLSCC to develop a workforce collaborative to repurpose and retrain hospitality workers to help with disaster preparedness, readiness, and recovery efforts.
- Retrain displaced hospitality workers for recovery and emerging industries to help maintain economic vitality, thereby business confidence.
- Establish a co-op partnership with the Private Sector to retain and repurpose hospitality workers.
- Implement a Hospitality Community Sector and Private Sector collaborative where local restaurants can provide food services to those residents in need and private businesses who desire catering services regularly.
Excerpt from the Letter dated 24 June 2020 – Reopening of Borders to VisitorsThe stakeholders brought up the critical point of when the borders will be opened to visitors to allow for guest accommodations and services industries to resume business, in light of the 2019/2020 tourism season being interrupted abruptly due to the pandemic restrictions. This would mitigate the risk of significant long-term damage to the tourism sector and overall economy and allow businesses to prepare for a ramping up of business activity, to retain staff and operational resources, and setting the conditions for a successful 2020/2021 tourism season. BVICCHA’s members and the sector understand the need for clear and concise conditions for a safe resumption of travel and propose a phased approach be taken for the opening of our borders to guests and visitors.
For your consideration, we propose the following:
- Stage A: opening from the week of 20 July 2020 to allow the accommodation sector on the sister islands and the yachting sector to receive visitors. Pre-health clearance would be required where visitors will be asked to submit COVID-19 test results a minimum of 48 hours before arrival or to be tested on arrival and self-quarantine for the period here, up to 14 days. Adherence to all government health and safety protocols by the businesses would be required.
- Stage B: Based on indications by the industry practitioners who have been receiving booking inquiries, a main reopening from 1 September 2020 to visitors with pre-health clearance where COVID-19 test results are submitted in advance of arrival is proposed.
- This will give adequate time for industry stakeholders to start planning from now for operational health & safety modifications, ramp up marketing; and the airlines to reinstate the routes.
- Also, to facilitate cost-efficient travel through the USVI, the main seaports of West End or Road Town will need to be open to visitors via the ferry who are also a stakeholder in the tourism sector.
We stand ready to be a part of the proactive solutions needed for all sectors as the economy is an integrated system and as the building blocks of the economy, we are only as strong as our weakest link but together, our country’s success is inevitable through strong partnerships such as those with the policy stakeholders and strategic partners such as the Tourist Board, allied members, the Marine Association and the Charter Yacht Society. We know it is unbelievable for all of us that just two years ago we were going into recovery mode from a tumultuous hurricane season, and now before we could catch our breaths, we are in the midst of a global health-economic “hurricane.” We are now required again to shift the way we think about and do business in order to survive and eventually thrive again. When you have moments of discouragement, because we all will, let us remember the words of Dr. Steve Maraboli: “Life doesn’t get easier or more forgiving, we get stronger and more resilient.” Virgin Islanders have durability in our DNA, and we will be first past the post because we did as the sailors of old did: we knew when to tack when the winds change direction. The Chamber urges us all to stand firm as we safeguard lives and livelihoods in partnership with our Government for the long haul ahead of us.
We encourage all businesses to access the available training and business support services available through the Association to help you adapt to this new business normal. We encourage all businesses to stay connected to the BVICCHA by renewing their membership or joining the Association on our website at www.bviccha.org. Remember, Your Business Is Our Business! We Got You! Practice good hygiene and physical distancing. Be safe and be well. Tough times do not last but tough people do!