Tobago entrepreneurs are calling on the Government to provide clarification on the operations of designated safe zones, particularly as it relates to restaurants and bars within hotels.
Bars, restaurants, gyms, cinemas, casinos, private members clubs and water parks are expected to resume operations to fully vaccinated patrons from October 11. All employees at these businesses must be fully vaccinated.
Attorney General Faris Al Rawi outlined the criteria to be classified as a safe zone during a news conference on October 2.
He said employees working within safe zones must be fully vaccinated, except for those who have been granted a medical exemption or deferral certificate issued by a medical officer from the public health care system. Employees will also be required to present an approved rapid test or PCR test with the certificates every 14 days.
Employers and patrons who breach the regulations for the management of safe zones will have to pay a hefty price.
Al Rawi said employers will be fined $25,000 for flouting the guidelines while unvaccinated patrons found within safe zones will be fined $5,000. Anyone found guilty of producing false documents will be charged with fraud and dealt with accordingly.
Children under 12 are not allowed in the safe zones as they are unvaccinated.
Former Tobago Hotel and Tourism Association (THTA) president Rene Seepersadsingh said some hoteliers are in a quandary as to how they should operate.
“In terms of the hotel, there is a major concern,” he told Newsday.
“We still find that the policy of the safe zones for hotels that have restaurants, bars and gyms does have a certain level of impracticality for implementation because for particularly the medium to larger-type properties with licenses, they have to service their guests who patronise these facilities.”
He added some hotel guests will also have children under age 12.
“The age restrictions will limit the desire for people to travel and stay in hotels, particularly in Tobago. If people are coming for holiday they will not leave their young children behind.”
Seepersadsingh, a director of the popular Crown Point bar Jade Monkey, said vaccinated and unvaccinated workers and guests are likely to mingle at hotels.
“There is a lot of common area usage in a hotel. For example, at the pool, lobby and front desk areas, you will have guests passing through. So, it does create a bit of impracticality in terms of implementation because then you run the risk of co-mingling your vaccinated and unvaccinated guests and staff, which may include housekeepers, maintenance staff and front desk employees.”He urged the Government to revisit its position on hotels.
Executive chairman of Mt Irvine Bay Resorts Jacqueline Yorke Westcott supports this view. She said while the idea of safe zones is a good one, it can be problematic for hotels and guesthouses.
“It will be logistically very difficult to operate as a safe zone in a building that is not a safe zone. I really don’t see how we will be able to do it. It has to be one or the other,” she said.
As such, Yorke Westcott believes hotels should be declared safe zones.
She asked, “In order to operate a restaurant, let’s say we are accepting vaccinated and unvaccinated guests, does that mean that only the vaccinated guests can sit in the restaurant while the unvaccinated guests have to have room service?
“Does it also mean that we have to get a parallel working system in that we only have employees who serve vaccinated guests and we only have employees who serve unvaccinated guests?”
Yorke Westcott said if this is the case, employees could be put at risk.
“There are some things that are confusing to us, especially the way most hotels and bars are laid out. You have to walk through public areas to get from one part of the hotel to another. It is going to be practically impossible for us to separate it. So, we would like some clarity from the Attorney General as to if we can declare the whole establishment a safe zone and then we will know how to operate.”
She said outside of that, hoteliers would only be able to accept vaccinated guests while observing the covid19 protocols.
Magdalena Grand Beach & Golf Resort general manager Vinod Bajaj also called for further clarification on the initiative.
Bajaj said he discussed the issue with management officials at the Hyatt and Hilton Trinidad last Monday, “but they are also waiting for further clarification.
“So, we will be working together.”
HOPING FOR NORMALCY
In the meantime, he said the hotel is preparing to receive guests.
“We are working on putting ourselves together and observing the specific guidelines from the Ministry of Health. So, we are in the process of working with our management team here.”
Seepersadsingh believes the safe zones are a step in the right direction.
“Any opportunity that would facilitate some normalisation, we think is a positive step.
“It is not really a challenge for us to implement, certainly, in terms of the members clubs. So, we are prepared.”
But he noted that even though certain categories of businesses are being allowed to reopen, they will still be operating with a 50 per cent patron capacity.
“So, the safe zone concept is a good step but it is not ideal because certainly there is still a level of restriction for patrons and because of the curfew, in businesses such as bars and members clubs it can be a bit of a challenge because these types of businesses are primarily night-time businesses.”
Seepersadsingh hopes the safe zones will serve as a precursor for further reopening “once the Government gets the upper hand on the disease.”
He said the majority of his staff have been vaccinated and are looking forward to resuming work.
“Everyone who will be in any contact or working in these areas, according to the regulations, has complied. Even before, people were pretty supportive.”
But Bajaj said there is still some hesitancy among his employees.
“We are not quite there yet but we are pushing them to do the right thing. We can’t force them because that is their right. But we are going to do what we have to do to implement this program (safe zones) and when the time comes, we will be ready to do that.”
Newsday understands that some restaurants across the island have seen employees quit rather than comply with the request to be vaccinated to allow in-house dining in a safe zone.
However, Sea Horse Inn owner Nicholas Hardwicke boasted his staff of 23 have been fully vaccinated.
“That has been in the case for a long time,” he told Newsday.
“We took the decision to inform our staff as best as possible about the need for vaccinations and the pros and cons of it so that they could make informed decisions.
“A little pressure was put on them but I think the lesson that came through for us in all of this was that when people supply you with the facts and information and are put in a situation where they can make their own informed decisions without being forced, which can sometimes evoke a sort of push back, then in due course, most people will work out.”
He added, “It is their interest to get vaccinated because it is the right thing to do not just from a personal perspective but from a community perspective and for the colleagues and family. We took that approach from day one, as soon as the vaccines became available. I am happy to say that at least for us that paid dividends because we are 100 per cent vaccinated and looking forward to getting past this pandemic and getting back to a life of normalcy.”
Hardwicke said he will adhere to the Government’s regulations for the operations of the safe zones.
“We have been given a set of stipulations by Government and, like any business in our sector that wants to be open for walk-in trade, we will comply and work with what we have been given.”
But he believes business operators are being asked to police their respective establishments.
“It is a bit of an imposition because they are putting the onus on the business operators to verify and check the customer credentials and leaving us to a certain degree, liable as well for any discrepancy, which in some cases may be beyond our control.”
The former THTA president said he hopes the criteria that has been laid out for safe zones doesn’t persist for too long.
“Obviously, that will be governed by how the vaccination rollout continues. But it is certainly going to impact business in terms of only allowing vaccinated people in. That reduces the available population size of permissible people to come to your restaurant in already difficult times.”
He added bar owners also will not be allowed to sell any alcoholic beverages.
“So, it compromises your ability to offer a conventional dining experience.”
Nevertheless, Hardwicke said, “We have vowed to do our best as I am sure everybody else. The proof will be in the eating once we get to that point where everything falls into place.”