Public health versus economy
After being holed up at home for almost five months, Guam started to look bright again. Malls and restaurants reopened on Mother’s Day when Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero moved Guam to Pandemic Condition of Readiness 3— which was to be short-lived. Many residents saw the reopening as a sign that the Covid-19 pandemic had ended, hence a signal to party. They went back to their carefree lives. The carefreeness led to carelessness.
Due to the overwhelming surge in Covid-19 cases, Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero reverted Guam to PCOR 1, creating a conflict with the business sector and highlighting the clash between public health and economy. A handful of people, led by small business owners, took to the streets in Tumon, protesting the second round of community lockdown and economic shutdown.
The business community will not survive more weeks of economic pause, the Guam Chamber of Commerce warned, urging the governor to reconsider her latest directive. A long list of businesses have closed shop since the start of the pandemic.
The public health situation has since worsened and Leon Guerrero stands pat on her latest order. “I will not falter on my policy,” she said.
“It’s been an interesting several months. We’re very concerned about our economy and businesses being able to stay open,” said Catherine Castro, Chamber president. “We’re also very worried about our employees’ livelihoods and their families. I know it concerns our governor as well, since she’s has put us back into PCOR 1, which will has a negative impact on local businesses.”
However, Castro added, “we have agreed to disagree with the governor. She’s the governor and she has to focus on containing the virus. It’s her right, but we believe businesses should not close.”
The government said the bulk of Covid-19 cases came from bars that disobeyed the Guam Department of Social Services’ social distancing guidelines. Dancing in a crowd, sharing a karaoke mic and tasting friends’ drinks were traditions of nightlife that are now things of the past.
“Bars that have broken social distancing guidelines should be closed,” Castro said. “They should be held accountable. We’re holding each other accountable to keep the virus at bay. We’ve been reminding each other. When people get lax and ignore protocols, we get an outbreak. We understand that when a certain business doesn’t follow guidelines report them.”
While Covid scares had hit some dining establishments, Castro said most restaurants have been abiding by guidelines.
“I haven’t really gone out to businesses since the pandemic, but I’ve gone grocery shopping and out to eat with family at restaurants. There are businesses that go above and beyond,” she said.
“They take temperature and put 6-feet markers and are always sanitizing. One time I saw a business turned someone away because they had a high temperature since it was a hot day. I told them to just drink water and cool off. Then when the person took their temperature again, they were able to go in. That business was pretty good—customers were given 12 feet of space. We see in our restaurants, servers wear gloves and masks. We’ve been supportive of what the governor put out in terms of guidelines from the CDC and DPHSS.”
The Covid-19 pandemic is wake-up call for Guam, a reminder that the island needs to revamp its economic model by diversifying its portfolio other than tourism and military. “Our economy has relied too heavily on tourism and we’ve noticed it for years,” Castro said. “This pandemic has made it very clear. It made us come to the table, Chamber-wide, and create initiatives we’d like to present to the administration. We’re actively engaged in trying to pursue initiatives. There are already certain laws in place that haven’t been explored to the capacity.
Besides tourism and military, construction is another pillar of Guam’s economy. Marked as “essential,” the construction industry has remained open throughout the pandemic.
“The main work available now is construction. We’re looking at businesses that support the construction industry,” Castro said. “They need warehouse workers and logistic managers and coordinators. There is a whole infrastructure that supports that industry. We’re also looking at reskilling the workforce for those who’d be interested in doing something different. If people are willing to relearn and reskill, Guam Trades Academy, Guam Community College and Guam Department of Labor can help fund their certificate. These opportunities are available and we’re looking at other opportunities.”
Castro is saddened by the closures of local favorites, such as Kitchen Lingo and Kadu. However, she acknowledges that the pandemic is creating an unstable economy and that it is unavoidable.
“In some senses, businesses don’t have a choice but to shut down for good,” she said. “If you can’t sell anything, you don’t have money, you can’t pay your employees, you can’t pay rent, and you can’t keep your doors open. Some of this is beyond our control. If flights aren’t coming in and countries are on lockdown, that’s beyond our control.”
Despite the uncertainty of the health of Guam’s economy, Castro looks forward to what the future holds. “We remain always hopeful,” she said. “People who know me see that I’m the positive person in the group. I try to look at the bright side. Even though it’s bleak, there is a bright side. It’ll be a long haul, but we’re resilient—that’s the kind of people we are on this island.”