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Gutted businesses cautious over travel bubble

Thursday 28 January 2021 | Written by Emmanuel Samoglou | Published in Economy, National

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Gutted businesses cautious over travel bubble
Photo: Cook Islands News. 20050837

With Covid-19 once again in the community in New Zealand, local business owners and workers are conflicted over whether the time is right to relax borders further and pursue two-way quarantine-free travel with New Zealand.

Small business owners are approaching the potential for more relaxed border controls with New Zealand with trepidation, and for obvious reasons.

Three new community cases discovered in New Zealand this week have once again raised fears about the virus possibly reaching the Cook Islands.

Prime Minister Mark Brown and local government officials have been working with their Kiwi counterparts on a plan to start two-way quarantine free travel between the two countries before the end of March this year.

That goal received a boost this month when both governments announced that Cook Islands residents would be allowed to travel without having to undergo mandatory quarantine in New Zealand.

With new variants of Covid-19 posing challenges to the global health response and the pandemic showing no signs of abating, Iriti Maoate of AJ Taxi Service said now is not the time to relax border controls.

“Personally, I’m not really in favour of it,” she said. “We’re suffering and our business is suffering, but we’d rather wait to be in the clear. I’ll be lucky if I get one or two runs a month, but I’d rather be careful than sorry.”

Like Maoate, a number of business owners and employees have voiced their concerns about the potential threats to public health that come with resuming tourism.

Many of them have been recipients of the wage subsidy included in Government’s three-phase $150 million Economic Response Plan (ERP), which has kept workers on the job and many businesses from going under.

“We’re suffering and our business is suffering, but we’d rather wait to be in the clear."

But since receiving an initial sole trader grant, AJ Taxi Services hasn’t been eligible for the subsidy. “We’re not getting the wage subsidy because of the way our business is structured, we have had to figure it out ourselves.”

“We are getting by,” she said. “I see people going to bars and getting takeaways, and wondering if they’re on the subsidy.”

Sitting in front of Dive & Surf shop in Avarua, staff member Manu also said the timing isn’t right. “It’s too soon,” he said.

“I was in Tahiti recently. They are struggling and the hospital facilities here aren’t as developed from what they have there,” he said.

“The virus can spread so fast.”

On the other side of the equation, some businesses and their staff are beginning to think the risk of opening the border might be a necessity.

For Zaire, who works at a souvenir shop in town, there is a fear the country won’t be able to sustain itself economically without tourists from NZ.

“This is what always seems to be happening: they say we’re going to open and then something Covid happens,” she said. “We need some people here soon, money is getting low.”

“If there’s no more wage subsidy, we won’t be getting paid.”

Government’s wage subsidy, which has kept many of the country’s workers on the job and businesses from shuttering, has been extended to the end of April.

Ministry of Finance Secretary Garth Henderson has described forecasting the nation’s finances as a “moving target”. Government has borrowed $US40 million ($55.5 million) to supplement the budget and further borrowing will be required to plug holes in upcoming budgets.

Local business owner Fletcher Melvin has been at the forefront of the private sector’s Covid-19 response through his role as Chair of the Private Sector Taskforce.

“Most of our members are looking to reestablish tourism but we don’t speak on behalf of all businesses,” he said.

“Businesses that are willing to stay locked down are the ones that are getting aid and accessing grants and getting subsidies,” he said. “The ones that aren’t are bleeding cash and are in a different predicament.”

“Our mandate is to set up a bubble with NZ, but at the end of the day we have to listen to the officials in New Zealand and the Cook Islands.”

As of Wednesday, local officials are staying optimistic that two-way travel can be established by the end of month.

But one business owner of a transportation company thinks that will be a long shot, with mid-year being a more realistic target. “I’m hesitant about Covid reaching our shores, so I’m not for it, and I’m not against,” they said.

“From a business perspective, I’ve written off about half of this year, but that’s just me. There are a lot of businesses that are bleeding who had already spent tomorrow’s money.

“I’m also bleeding, but the health of people is more important than my business surviving.”