The economic impact of covid19 has left many small and medium enterprises (SMEs) grasping at every opportunity and incentive to survive.
Bars, in particular, came under heavy scrutiny by both the government and the public as a source from which the virus may be spread.
Health regulations via the Public Health Ordinance implemented by the government in March, including the first round of lockdown measures, restricted bars from operating and also prevented in-house dining at restaurants, casinos and other clubs until April 20.
The second round of regulations were not as strict but still prevented gatherings and liming at these establishments. Stakeholders, including the TT Beverage Alcohol Alliance (TTBAA), the Trinidad Hotel Restaurant and Tourism Association and the Bar Owners/Operators Association of TT, were not pleased.
They later noted that the regulations were being threatened by the leniency of the government given the circumstance. TTBAA chairman Dr Patrick Antoine noted that they were "extremely concerned about the practice of non-compliance,” and have been working diligently since government's ultimatum, to ensure full compliance of covid19 protocols by all bar owners.
Business Day visited several bars from Tabaquite to Rio Claro; owners indicated the struggles of keeping their businesses operational.
These areas are rural but also growing, and known more for agriculture than commerce. Enterprise is increasing, moving from rural farming to commercial activity, with retail centres, transport hubs, small scale manufacturing and agroprocessing.
Tough times, tougher people
Gloria Boodram, who has owned and operated Gloria’s Bar, along Jeffers Crossing, Tabaquite – about half a mile away from Harry’s Waterpark – said her family suffered to make ends meet as the bar was her only source of income.
Boodram, 57, who lives with her two daughters and grandchild, said they had to find other ways to complement their business model in order to pay the bills.
She said, “I had a hard time meeting my sales target and it still continues to be hard. I barely make a quarter of what I used to make before covid19.
“We decided to sell food to attract customers but again the traffic is slow, and it will be a huge risk we are taking.”
Boodram said while she understood the need for the regulations, the rationale for the spread of the virus was unjustified. “Yes, we have to think about the people and their health, but for the Minister of Health and others in authority to blame bars, was uncalled for. I think bars in small communities suffer more than the ones in the cities and the more developed areas.”
Kevin Mohammed, owner of Run Jungle bar along the Naparima/Mayaro Road, Libertyville, Rio Claro, had similar sentiments.
Covid19 reduced sales by almost 75 per cent, he said. "Bars were not designed for the concept of buy-and-go. Anywhere that has a congregation of people (could) attract the virus and bars (are being) solely blamed.
“But if you look at the groceries, there are a lot more people in the same place at the same time and in closer proximity to each other. So, to blame bars was unjustified and it was not a fair statement.”
When interviewed before the presentation of the 2021 budget, Mohammed said he hoped government provided some incentives for bar owners, especially those in the countryside.
“I know with the current economic climate there is no room for compensation like what was given to the maxi owners. I am simply asking that they (Government) keep the prices of alcohol and cigarettes the same. There also needs to be a relaxation of the amendments to the regulations as it relates to bars.”
On Monday during the budget presentation, Finance Minister Colm Imbert announced an increase in excise duty by 20 per cent on all locally manufactured tobacco products and an increase in customs duty by 20 per cent on imported tobacco from the common market origin (Caricom); customs duty on extra-regional sources will receive equal treatment to that of the common market. The changes were expected to take effect from October 20.
Mohammed told Business Day on Tuesday while he hoped for the best, this was what the government thought best to do. The impact, he noted, will be hard on small businesses but there was nothing they could do.
“They (Government) see cigarettes as a luxury item. It will have an initial impact on us but after a while it is going to be the norm. It is a vice and people are already hooked on it. So, if a pack of cigarettes go for $100 people will buy.”
Every little helps
Other bars in Rio Claro expressed similar challenges, but also noted the effort by Carib Brewery to assist with new expenditure, which has now become a recurring expenditure, due to covid19.
Hand sanitizers, plastic barriers, take-away bags, disinfectants, masks, directional stickers, and other sanitation products have been provided to bar owners by the brewery. Owners said such assistance helps with their expenditure.
Circle Square bar owner Allister Mohammed said the items Carib Brewery provides saves him about $1,000 per month.
Mohammed who has been running the bar for the past 20 years in San Pedro, Poole said, “This saving can be used to take care of my parents who are pensioners. The extra money goes towards things they need.”
Another bar owner, Amshard Rahim Rahi, said he took over the family business, Amshard’s Bar on Union Road, Rio Claro some years ago.
He noted that the current decline in sales and overall business have been the worst he has ever seen, and the assistance offered by Carib Brewery, no matter how small, goes a long way. “Carib is the only company that has given us help during this tough situation. They have been giving us barriers to install by the sales counters and they even took back the old stocks that weren’t sold during the lockdown and replaced it with new stock.”
He said to implement such changes and upgrade of stock would have been very costly and explained Carib’s initiative has saved him a lot.
Rahi said, “It is costly, and we have to always have sanitisers, masks, soaps and other things on hand all the time. Even changing the plastic barriers is costly."
The bar owners said they were grateful for the effort put forward by Carib and hoped others will follow suit.