The blaring of speakers advertising hot deals, pedestrians bustling up and down the pavement and taxi drivers shouting “one to go” was synonymous with downtown San Fernando.
Now, at least 20 per cent of the city’s shops and stores have gone out of business and the loud chatter of commerce is now a murmur as COVID-19 enters its seventh month in T&T.
The main shopping area, High Street is scantily populated, and both street vendors and store owners say it is becoming a ghost town.
In the sweltering heat, Judah Hartman sat on the pavement outside Mohammed’s Bookstore at noon, awaiting his first sale. For the past 40 years, Hartman offered his handmade leather slippers, sandals and belts for sale on the pavement of High Street.
“It ain’t have no sale,” Hartman told Guardian Media yesterday.
“Since about March the place like this. I come out three days for the week but things ain’t happening.”
With no wife, and his children all working, he survives by living a country life, “digging ah lil yam” and paying bills with whatever sales he makes.
Doubles is a staple breakfast food of T&T. Yet there are not many customers around to partake of the meal. Workers at a popular spot along Penitence Street said since the Public Health Ordinance (COVID-19) Regulations mandates that food outlets only allow carry-out services, people are not buying as before. It resulted in the owners letting go of one employee.
“Since it is only take away, sales dropped because a lot of people want to eat their doubles hot on the spot. Sales were dropping since about March, and two weeks ago, the sales dropped even more.”
The workers speculated that as a lot of places were closing down, people who usually work in the area are no longer there to buy.
“A lot of the regular customers, we do not see them any more.”
Roadside bookseller Tony Volman said people are selling books more than buying. Volman said people do not have money and are searching for ways to make an earning. While street vendors get their highest sales around Christmas, Volman and others believe this year’s holidays will be gloomy.
“People will have to be thankful for what they have because it might be like this for the rest of the year or until we get a vaccine. I cannot see that it will get better soon,” Volman said.
Darren Samaroo, the owner of Anil’s Fashion, described it as a drought which forced him and several other store owners to close earlier than usual.
“You can stand up here for the whole day, and you do not get a sale. It is real.”
While his sales dropped by an estimated 80 per cent, his family operates the store, so the operating cost is lower. They are holding out to see if the Christmas season brings better sales.
Randy Birbal, who operates Randy’s Sports World, said that as contact sports are now prohibited his top sellers: uniforms, bats and balls remain on the shelves. The only things customers buy are bicycles, bicycle parts, dumbells and weights.
Randy’s Sports Worlds was a successful business for the past 15 years, but now it manages to earn enough to stay afloat.
“Sales are down by about 40 -50 per cent, it could be more. Sometimes you come here all day, and you only get two customers. I am alone here now because my wife is at home with my kids. After all, there is no school, and we are not making that much to hire a babysitter,” Birbal said.
While people walked along High Street, St James Street, Penitence Street, Mon Chargin Street, Harris Promenade and surrounding streets, the stores were empty. The banks had the most foot traffic as people lined up outside, waiting to enter. “For rent” and “Sorry We’re Closed” signs were evidence of the slowed economy.
President of the San Fernando Business Association Daphne Bartlett said the City suffered its first economic clout in 2018 when the Government shutdown the Pointe-a-Pierre Refinery, leaving over 5000 people without jobs. Barlett said COVID-19 only made it worse.
“Driving around the southern part of the country, we would say about 15-20 per cent of businesses are closed, all types. They are closed down, moved out their premises, their place is empty, and it is for rent. For the open shops, remember people are not coming out to shop as before because of COVID, they are fearful that they may contract it.
Also, many more people are unemployed, so that contributes to the lack of buying power of citizens, so we have a new normal, and the government has put various stimuli in place so that we can become more productive,” Barlett said.
She believes the government needs to manage the country’s foreign exchange efficiently now by prohibiting importing goods that locals produce. She says the reopening of the refinery will not only stimulate the overall economy but save millions of dollars from not having to import fuel. Additionally, she wants the government to focus on the “ease of doing business” as well as export businesses.