Business leaders pleaded with the Government yesterday to slash red tape to get people back to work — and help stave off the collapse of companies hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Bermuda Chamber of Commerce warned that the economy was in dire straits. Kendaree Burgess, the chamber’s chief executive, said: “You can hear the fear out there; people are worried sick.”
Ms Burgess was speaking after the Government on Wednesday revealed a package of financial breaks designed to kick-start an economy devastated by the coronavirus crisis and a think-tank advisory committee to help the island recover from its impact.
However, Martha Dismont, the executive director at Family Centre, said she doubted the aid measures would bring enough relief for blue-collar workers trying to keep afloat.
The relief package, announced by Curtis Dickinson, the finance minister, gave a payroll tax break for restaurants and bars, duty deferrals for stores, and a suspended pension and social insurance contributions after two months of restrictions designed to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Ms Burgess said the measures were “a great start if we want to get individuals off the collective respirator”.
She added: “We have countless challenges for which there are no easy answers. But the sustained effort on Government’s part needs to be put into people back to work, post-Covid.”
Ms Burgess said it was “unlikely we will go back” from a move to online working that had come “faster than many would have anticipated”.
But she added: “Some traditional bricks-and-mortar businesses will need help making the transition to online.”
Ms Burgess said the chamber had surveyed businesses to assess their chances of survival and that the responses were not as “robust as we hoped”.
She added: “The message is that people are struggling.
“People are terrified — they’re terrified of losing their businesses, with everything they’ve put their hearts and souls into.
“They’re afraid of taking on more debt, not knowing if future business is out there and if it will get to them fast enough to keep them above water.
“They’re afraid for their staff. With the thought that a tourism season may not happen, the future isn’t rosy.”
She said the fear spanned “a great number of industries” but agreed with Mr Dickinson that restaurants and bars were among those “feeling it the most”.
However, Ms Burgess said the chamber was pleased by the appointment of Dennis Fagundo, the chamber’s president, to Mr Dickinson’s Covid-19 Economic Advisory Committee.
She added more than 100 recommendations had been submitted by the chamber and its divisions on “what would help their individual industries”.
Ms Burgess said she hoped the Government would revisit a 2018 report submitted by the chamber which featured with “low-hanging fruit” that would boost the economy.
She added the report, prepared in 2017 by business schools from Queens University in Canada and Cornell University in the United States, was “filled with ideas for economic stimulus and sustainability”.
Ms Burgess said: “To get people working, the Government’s role has always been to provide a framework that enables entrepreneurs and businesses to work their magic.
“Now more than ever, Government needs to reduce the red tape associated with starting businesses, and attracting businesses to our shores.
Ms Burgess asked the Government to “dust off” ideas in the Cornell-Queens report that would not require major retraining of people who had lost their jobs. She added; “The report’s ideas for food sustainability is one of them. In this Covid world, we know that the food train is facing all kinds of difficulties.”
Ms Dismont said Family Centre believed the real number of people who were struggling to survive was still unknown.
She added relief efforts “will certainly help some people — but how many is uncertain”.
Ms Dismont said the pandemic had been “a fairly scary scenario for much of the world”, but that the task that faced governments across the globe was “far scarier”.
She added: “If there is one thing that we have learnt, it is that we cannot use yesterday’s methods to address the problems caused by the pandemic, which has spiralled the world into new normals.”
Ms Dismont highlighted that the Government had handed out about $23 million in unemployment benefits so far.
She said: “Since we do not know when we will begin to see travel visitors, full business reopening or new jobs for those who had been searching for work previously, it appears that more will be support will be needed.
“It is hard to predict how any government can come up with immediate solutions when we are still working our way out of this pandemic.
“Their relief efforts will surely help, particularly payroll tax suspensions, but we expect that even they will admit that these are attempts at some relief, but certainly not overall solutions.”
Ms Dismont added: “We believe Government is doing its best, to consider options for those struggling financially as a result of the pandemic and they may not get everything correct, but we give them high marks for trying.”