It was either a sigh of relief or optimism for many business owners on October 11 when the TT Safe Zone initiative took effect. But after a month of operation, many say they are not generating sufficient revenue.
The Safe Zone policy allowed cinemas, gyms, private member clubs, casinos and water parks to operate and eateries to offer dine-in services after months of closure to control the spread of COVID-19.
However, business owners and groups are complaining that the Safe Zone restrictions and State of Emergency (SoE) choked their revenues.
Dachin Group of Companies chairman Derek Chin said yesterday that the implementation of Safe Zones was a positive step, given that cinemas and restaurants were closed for a prolonged period.
Dachin operates Movie Towne, Rizzoni’s Ristorante Italiano, Texas de Brazil and Jaxx International Grill.
With just about 50 per cent of the eligible population vaccinated and a 50 per cent customer capacity allowed in the zones, Chin said this affected businesses’ ability to generate revenue.
“It is definitely good for the point that we were able to open up and have some sort of business, but negative in terms of the fact that even though it is a safe area, in that it still has too many restrictions that limit our ability to attract enough people to make it worthwhile,” Chin said.
He hopes the end of the SoE today will boost sales, noting businesses will be able to expand operating hours.
However, he said the spike in COVID-19 infections now affects their ability to generate traffic to the cinemas and restaurants. Over the last two weeks, Dachin businesses saw a drop in customers, he said.
Chin said the only option for T&T to reduce infections and deaths was vaccination. To encourage this, he suggested that the Government remove some restrictions on Safe Zones so customers would feel it would be a privilege. If there is a Carnival 2022, he said events can be safe zones.
Children under 12 years are not eligible for COVID-19 vaccines and cannot enter Safe Zones. Although studies show that children have a significantly reduced risk of developing COVID-19, Chin said the Government restricted them from entering restaurants, where families usually go. Without their children, many families choose not to patronise, he noted.
In pre-pandemic times, Central Athletic Club (CAC) would be pumping with music and the sound of members working out. Active membership was feasible for business continuity at CAC branches in Chaguanas and Ste Madeleine earlier this year.
However, general manager Adana Craig yesterday said the turnout over the last month was better than expected but not great. She said the average capacity was 25 per cent, as some regular clients have no intention of vaccinating. She said although there is a significantly lower chance of vaccinated people dying from COVID-19, members are still worried about getting infected.
“There are people who are fully vaccinated and still kind of sceptical to come back to the Safe Zone because as much as we are all vaccinated in the Safe Zone, you still have to be outside with people who are not vaccinated and could still get the COVID-19. You can still spread it but the chance of you dying is significantly low,” Craig said.
With almost 12 months of closures, she believes gyms cannot survive another lockdown.
In reaching out to various suppliers, the Chamber of Industry and Commerce has noted a minor increase in supplies to Safe Zones but traffic remains very low.
Chamber CEO Gabrial Faria said for some businesses, high percentages of their customer bases are unvaccinated.
“Let us take a bar or one of those pubs. You might find they have a higher level of unvaccinated persons, so they did not see the traffic. And many of them are actually saying that they had hoped for more activity, but it has not occurred,” Faria said.
As seen in several foreign countries, he recommends that the Government broaden the Safe Zone concept to include any high-risk environment. It can be workplaces where social distancing is difficult and public transportation. He said this would be an impetus for more people to get vaccinated.
Faria also commended Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley for signalling that the Government will not close any more sectors of the economy.
“I want to commend the Government on taking a strong leadership position in recognising that we have to learn to live with COVID. By doing that, they would have provided some level of confidence to the business community that all the talk of lockdowns was just talk. As we go forward, we cannot penalise the 650,000 people who have done the right thing and got vaccinated.”
Casino and private member clubs are also struggling.
Sherry Persad, president of the T&T Private Members’ Club Association, said peak hours were usually between 9 pm to 1 am.
While Safe Zones allow for 50 per cent capacity, Persad said casinos and clubs have averaged 10 per cent.
“It has been very challenging for our businesses, which are predominantly night businesses. Coupled with the requirements for having vaccinated people only and having limited time to open, we are not seeing any light at the end of the tunnel right now. We are hoping with the lifting of the SoE, that will change,” Persad said.