When the Ministry of Health enforced public health regulations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, bars were among the first non-essential activities shut down and the last allowed to reopen. For a period that extended from March 16 to June 8, the sector was kept in full lockdown, only allowed to resume activities in Phase Five of the lifting of pandemic restrictions.
It has been a rocky resumption. Operating hours for bars were slashed by two hours, mainly based on social media videos of jam-packed bars where unmasked patrons and staff flouted all of the public health protocols. This prompted warnings from Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley and Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh that bars might be shut down again.
It turned out that the breaches of the pandemic rules occurred only at a few bars, so the concern raised by the Barkeepers and Operators Association T&T (BOATT) that the response resulted in “Peter paying for Paul” is valid. So are their calls for the measures to be reconsidered.
The offending bar operators and patrons should have been penalised, not the entire sector, since real hardships are now being experienced by owners, operators and employees. Their concerns should not be ignored. Bars contribute to income generation and job creation in the hospitality and entertainment sector.
BOATT, a relatively new organisation, has been lobbying on behalf of its 156 members with 884 employees. However, the wider sector consists of approximately 5,000 bars, according to a 2017 estimate, and employs more than 20,000 people.
For close to three months while bars remained closed there was a negative impact on thousands of people, including suppliers and service providers, either directly or indirectly. BOATT puts the number affected at over 100,000.
All of these people suffered a significant loss of income and there is still no real relief in sight because the two-hour reduction in operating hours has harmed businesses that get the bulk of their customers in the late evening hours.
To make matters worse, there has been unfair competition from restaurants which can remain open until 10 pm and can serve alcohol. Traditional bar customers are thus now enjoying their drinks in restaurants
As a result, many bars have suffered a marked reduction in sales, unable to break even because their operating hours are shorter but their operating costs remain at the same levels. Overheads, including gaming and other taxes, still have to be paid.
BOATT officials, who were outside the Office of the Prime Minister highlighting their plight yesterday, warned that many bars are on the brink of financial collapse. This threatens the livelihoods of thousands of citizens.
Certainly, there can be an easing of these restrictions on bars without compromising any of the progress made in flattening the COVID curve. A more even-handed approach is called for.
Planning a steady path forward for a post-COVID T&T requires that bars and all other sectors hit hard by the virus are given at least a fighting chance to survive.