• By Bea Cabrera

Resetting the CNMI economy


Saipan— With promising signs that the curve has flattened, CNMI Gov. Ralph DLG Torres has eased certain restrictions that were put in place to curb the spread of Covid-19. Some businesses have cautiously reopened their doors. As of the last week of May, the CNMI had 22 positive cases and two coronavirus-related deaths. Zero results in recent weeks have paved the way for a gradual resumption of the local economy.

The governor signed Executive Order 20-04 declaring the Commonwealth under the state of significant emergency and a state of public health emergency in mid-March due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Borders were closed, schools were cancelled, government offices were shut down, and residents were ordered to stay home. Dining establishments, personal care services, and some retail and recreation related businesses decided to temporarily close.

The directive has since undergone a couple of amendments following public scrutiny. Some coronavirus mitigation measures were beefed up, while others were relaxed. Three months later, with the effective undertaking of the CNMI Covid-19 Task Force to flatten the curve, business leaders started discussing economic recovery.

At the Fiscal Response Summit in May, the Saipan Chamber of Commerce and other business leaders have started preliminary talks about reopening the CNMI economy and, in doing so, find a middle ground so as not to affect the health and safety of the community.

Resetting the economy has become a routine for the CNMI, which has been ravaged repeatedly by a series of super typhoons in recent years. While the CNMI has risen relatively quickly from the rubble after each typhoon, crawling back up from the wreckage of the Covid-19 pandemic is a different story.

Alex Sablan, president of the Northern Marianas Business Alliance Corp., said before the CNMI opens and invites tourists to come once again, domestic businesses must restart first. “This is important, so the people have the ability to earn, consume, and have activities. It is imperative that we get our local community safe, confident, and that all the measures that we are talking about and putting in place are going to keep them safe,” said Sablan, vice president for corporate business development at Tan Holdings Corp.

He said the business sector has begun discussions with the governor, Covid-19 Task Force chairman Warren Villagomez, and many other business leaders in the Commonwealth to start opening businesses. “The talks were also joined by the Chinese, Korean, and Japanese tourism markets and the current discussion is to start getting our local economy going first by opening businesses in general and community gathering, but with mitigation measures in place,” Sablan said.

“The continued idea is that we will still have social distancing protocols in place, masks, and we are looking at thermal imaging as a requirement for businesses and large establishments like hotels or grocery stores within the tourism corridor in the core of Garapan. These thermal imaging cameras will help determine if somebody has a heightened temperature, usually one of the symptoms of the Covid-19 flu.”

Sablan said absolute testing is the only way to determine the situation in every area in the CNMI and this will be a good basis for how to jumpstart the local economy. “We have the ability to test everyone here because the governor was able to acquire 60,000 Covid-19 tests kits. I don’t believe that there is a community out there that has this capability,” he said.

“Since we have this capability, it is only prudent for us to ensure that we don’t have ‘hot spots’ on this island. If the tests determine or recognize ‘hot spots,’ then we know where and how to contain [them]. If [the tests do not return hot spots], then it is awesome as we’ve flattened the curve because of the amazing protocols that have been put in place.”

Alex Sablan

Sablan and other business leaders recommended that the number of people who have had negative test results would be a good benchmark and basis to reopen the economy.

“When we reached 1,500 people who got tested, the governor actually used it and relaxed the curfew from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Next phase can be 3,000; 5,000; 10,000 etc. tests and they are good factors or basis for the phases until we are fully ready again to get the economy going. But these are just recommendations and, ultimately, we leave it to the governor,” he said.

“This is to show how important testing is. We want to do this as safely as possible, but at some point, we have to open commerce because people need jobs. People are getting less than half of their payroll, getting furloughed, and we need to get this economy going as soon as possible and convince source markets that have tourists to come as soon as possible as well.”

Torres has set July 15 as target date to reopen the CNMI to tourists. While the CNMI may not be completely Covid-free, Sablan said, “relatively Covid-free” can make tourists come back. “The latter is the idea behind all the testing and all the mitigation measures we are talking about putting in place so the world will look at us again,” he said.

“When we get local commerce going, then that actually sends out a message to the rest of the world that this place has opened up, but is still going to maintain mitigation measures like social distancing, compulsory use of masks, etc., and these will show that the curve has flattened considerably.”

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During the past few weeks, many businesses that temporarily closed for two months have resumed operations.

Saipan Mango Six Café has reopened after being closed for a month. “We used the time that we are not in operation on researching how to solve the health and safety of our customers and employees,” said the owner, Sun Moon Ahn. “After a month, I noticed that the Covid-19 situation on Saipan is very well controlled by the government and coupled with customers’ requests to open made us ready to serve again.”

The Mexican restaurant Loco & Taco in Garapan closed shop in March. “Going around and seeing businesses open and how they implemented safety measures and social distancing inside their establishment gave me an idea how to do it in our own restaurant. I also believe that the government has everything under control that is why we started operations once again,” said owner Sungnam Lee.

Laxmi Shrestha of Everest Kitchen said she closed her restaurant in March due to health and safety concerns not only for her employees but for their customers as well. “As soon as all our staff were able to get the Covid-19 test that gave negative results, we felt confident to open the restaurant without any risk to our staff and customers,” she said.

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Sablan noted that when the state of significant emergency and a state of public health emergency were declared, “there wasn’t really any pressure for businesses to close down.” The business owners’ decision to shutter up was prompted by “fear” of the coronavirus, he added.

Sablan said the mitigation measures that have kept the Covid-19 contagion in check have allowed the business community to survive.

“It is very important that we maintain protocols,” Sablan said. “Continue to wear the masks, practice social distancing, continue to stay home if you can. I know it is very difficult in our community that is so social, love for elders and families wanting to come together, but if you want to maintain this ‘flattening of the curve’ until we have an actual vaccine, we still need to maintain these measures for the foreseeable future.”

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