When news broke that the CNMI’s COVID-19 Emergency Directives would be amended, many restaurant businesses were fearful that the new directives may include taking away dine-in services that could shut businesses down. It was, therefore, with a sigh of relief for many businesses when the amendments involved only new curfew and business hours, remote learning for schools, limited gathering for people, and restricted building occupancy. With this, local businesses pressed ahead with providing services to the community and jobs to their employees, while encouraging the continued practice of health and safety protocols.
According to Saipan Chamber of Commerce president Velma Palacios, the Chamber has not heard any negative feedback from businesses regarding the new COVID-19 requirements. “The main change was the curfew and in general businesses are complying with the COVID-19 Task Force requirements to reopen and to ensure the safety of their employees and customers,” she said.
Many restaurants and customers are happy that the new regulations did not take away dine-in operations. “We agree this a good thing, as many restaurants have been working on complying with the COVID-19 requirements to offer dine-in services. The more businesses open, it will be good for our economy,” Palacios said.
“This is also a start to provide some level of confidence to our community members that businesses are following safety protocols and, if businesses do not follow the safety protocols, their operations will be shut down by the enforcement agencies,” Palacios added.
Although the future still remains uncertain, CNMI businesses have welcomed the move to reopen after several months of zero business activity. “No one knows what next week or even next month will bring. In our small business forum, some businesses mentioned they were thriving; others are still struggling. Businesses are taking it day by day, being flexible to our current situation,” Palacios said. “Some who have reopened are still trying to decide how much of a business loss they can afford or whether they can continue to adapt to the changes. We hope businesses remain open, as once a business closes their doors, it is harder to reopen.”
In the midst of so much job losses and people finding it harder and harder to put food on the table, the fate of so many businesses are in danger of becoming just background chatter. That’s where the Saipan Chamber of Commerce stepped in, giving business leaders and owners a platform last month in a special town hall meeting to share their concerns, fears and the challenges they face of operating during a pandemic. They were heard by a panel from the government and business sector led by Lt. Gov. Arnold I. Palacios.
Many of the concerns include more cutbacks or total closure of business operations due to CW-1 “touchback” requirement (which would require some foreign workers to exit the CNMI for 30 days before being given a new work contract), streamlining the government’s permitting processes, reducing permit fees that have recently gone up with no clear notice to business owners, and for the government to finally open the cannabis industry.
Others include initiating a campaign that bears positive messaging about the CNMI both within and outside, food security, encouraging and supporting business-to-business deals, and more regular meetings with small businesses to make sure they are always heard.
“We have shared some of our recommendations with our government leaders. We continue to comment on any proposed legislations which affect the business community. We hope our government leaders take our input,” Palacios said.