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Gibraltar businesses brace for virus impact on trade

Local businesses have been preparing themselves for the impact of a widespread coronavirus outbreak in Gibraltar, while doing what they can to protect their staff and customers from the spread of the virus. 

This comes at a time when the Government of Gibraltar is encouraging “social distancing” to avoid the spread of the virus. 

The Government and its Director of Public Health, Dr Sohail Bhatti, are determined that this is the right course of action in protecting the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. 

But by following Spain and Italy’s examples and by recommending that people stay at home, this is taking a toll on local businesses. 

The Chronicle spoke to a cross section of these businesses who shared their concerns, whether it is a lack of staff or a lack of footfall, and are calling for the Government to help out as Gibraltar works together to fight the pandemic. 

The Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said he will today announce new measures for the business community, in what he said would be “a mini-budget”.

One local business has already noted the drop in footfall in over the past couple of weeks, notably from the older generations who come by to purchase their newspapers. 

Bryan Ritchie, of Imperial Newsagents in Main Street, told the Chronicle: “There has been a slight downturn in people walking through the door since the Government issued advice for the elderly.” 

“Older locals are popping around less and instead family members or cleaners are coming in to do their shopping.” 

“There is a noticeable difference in the number of people walking around town and for a localised shop like ours, we notice it because we see the same faces everyday.” 

As a small retailer, Mr Ritchie is concerned that if the virus were to spread among those working there, the shop would have to remain shut. 

This is a concern too for Kamini Bhambhwani, of the local perfume shop, Venice Ltd. 

As a sole trader, she has noticed a reduction in sales since news of the virus broke out and is concerned that if she falls ill, the business would have to remain closed until she recovers. 

“As a small business, I am affected by this situation and I look forward to some form of support from the Government,” Mrs Bhambhwani said. 

Meanwhile Cristina Barton of Tina’s Takeaway has seen a drop in the number of tourists coming by her eatery. 

In addition to the loss of business, Mrs Barton was also targeted by burglars a few weeks ago and was robbed of £500 and a watch, and is yet to recover that money. 

Last week, all restaurants, bars and cafes were told they must close their doors to all customers after 8pm, but after reconsideration over the weekend, all catering facilities are to remain shut with takeaway only facilities available. 

One business that saw its demand increase over the past few days has been Hungry Monkey although it has implemented a “zero contact drop off service” for its deliveries. 

A spokesman for the company said that this will “remove the need for direct contact between the delivery driver and a customer during a delivery”. 

With many people unable to leave their homes during a period of self-isolation, customers have been turning to the delivery service to deliver their goods, and by entering this option in the request box it protects both the customer and the driver, the spokesman added. 

“We are concerned about the driver, the customers and the restaurants, and this needs to be a collective effort in order to work,” the Hungry Monkey spokesman added. 

The coronavirus pandemic has also affected the tourism industry with flights cancelled and people restricted from entering certain countries or having to quarantine themselves for 14 days on their return. 

Sixto Parody of Parody Tours told the Chronicle that many bookings are being cancelled and so far no new one have been made. 

He is hoping that the Government will help small businesses in the coming months as a result of the pandemic. 

MH Bland said that is taking action to “safeguard our employees and are taking advice from the authorities on how best to do that”. 

“The situation is fluid and we will continue to monitor the circumstances as it develops,” Mandy Gaggero from MH Bland told Gibraltar. 

Meanwhile larger retailers such as Marks & Spencer, Next and Early Learning Centre have introduced contingency plans in case of staff shortages. 

For now the company has introduced hand sanitiser gels for customers and staff to use and implemented strict hygiene protocols at the facilities. 

Director Chris Walker told the Chronicle: “We hope to manage as best as we can but it depends on the severity of the infection spread.” 

“We hope to have enough staff to keep the stores manageable.”

A big concern for Gibraltar’s gaming companies is that many members of staff live in Spain and commute into Gibraltar for their jobs. 

For those working at Lottoland, this continues to be a concern and the management have put protocols in place to ensure its staff can “work anywhere”. 

Nigel Birrell, CEO of Lottoland commented: “Lottoland is and will continue to operate the business as usual, but is following closely both the advice and updates from the UK and Gibraltar Governments.” 

“We are in regular dialogue with our staff and have put a number of precautionary measures in place, such as; taking laptops home daily, minimising travel to urgent and essential travel only, ensuring HR are aware of holiday destinations so these can be logged, if feeling unwell to work from home and call a doctor for advice and reinforcing the obvious re basic high standards of personal hygiene.” 

“If staff members do have to self-isolate then this will be no different to, if they work from home.” 

“In this digital age all staff members are equipped with the right technology to ensure they can work anywhere and this will have no impact on the business.”

While businesses have raised their concerns, the Chamber of Commerce and the Gibraltar Federation of Small Businesses have been speaking to Government officials to express their members’ concerns while also ensuring the correct guidelines are followed. 

The Chamber of Commerce issued a statement saying it has received calls, emails and spoken to a number of local businesses. 

President Christian Hernandez told the Chronicle businesses have spoken about a “sudden downturn in business”, and have noted a drop in footfall since precautionary measures have been introduced. 

“We are seeing a sharp fall in business as a result of two things,” Mr Hernandez said. 

“Less tourists coming into Gibraltar and Gibraltarians like you and me are going out less and being more conservative in our movements.” 

In the medium term this could lead businesses to have to close down in the future and this would be “catastrophic”, although Mr Hernandez does not know whether this will happen to businesses on the Rock. 

“We are entering new territory,” Mr Hernandez said, adding: “We have never seen this here before.” 

He said that although the Chamber will keep a close eye on developments over the next couple of weeks, Gibraltar has to be able to “react quickly” as well. 

Mr Hernandez told the Chronicle that the Chamber has requested a meeting with the Government to discuss the private sector’s concerns, adding that measures for businesses are a “top priority” for the Chamber. 

Meanwhile the Gibraltar Federation of Small Businesses said the board has met with the Government to highlight member’s concerns regarding Covid-19. 

“We have been seeking advice from other jurisdictions and seeing what other countries are doing to help the business community and will be urging the Government to take similar steps,” a statement from the GFSB read. 

The GFSB said it hoped that the Government will take “heed” of the UK’s budget commitments and follow suit. 

“At this time we would like to remind our members to follow the Government and health professionals advice and help reduce the spread of the virus,” the GFSB added. 

“This is a quickly evolving situation and as soon as we have an update for our members we will let them know.”