AG: We can get 'strict' on banks

By Youri Kemp

Tribune Business Reporter

The Attorney General yesterday warned that the government could get “very strict” by forcing banks to close their branch doors as part of efforts to combat the COVID-19m pandemic.

Carl Bethel QC, speaking before the Cabinet meeting, said the availability of online and electronic banking channels, such as automated teller machines (ARMs) and debit/credit cards, meant Bahamian businesses and consumers were able to conduct transactions electronically rather than having to visit branches electronically.

“We can get very strict,” he warned. “Right now, for example, we could shut down all of the banks forthwith on the basis and understanding that most persons have some form or method of withdrawing cash from banks.

“There are deposit machines. ATM machines are both for the purposes of deposit and withdrawal, and the majority of workers in this country receive their payment via electronic means in any event. So these are all things to be considered if we are so advised by the medical practitioners.

“This is not something that the government is relishing doing. This is not something that we want to do,” Mr Bethel added. “This is something that we are advised that we must do, and I can only emphasise to the general Bahamian public and all residents in this country the critical urgency of fully obeying all of the requirements of the national, nationwide curfew.

“It is critically important. We cannot have a policeman outside of every house. People must self-protect. The strongest human instinct is the survival instinct. Let us fall back to our gut instincts in this matter. This is not a matter to take lightly.” 

Banks remain on the list of businesses that are considered an “essential” service, and thus are exempted - at least for the moment - from the nationwide lockdown that the entire Bahamas has been placed under as efforts to combat the coronavirus ramp up.

However, individual banks have been seeking to limit their exposure even though they have been allowed to open from 9am to 5pm. Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), for example, yesterday revealed that its main Bay Street and Mackey Street branches will close as of today, while Bank of The Bahamas is restricting its opening hours to between 9.30am and 1pm. 

Dr Duane Sands, minister for health, declined to comment on the likelihood that the Government will ask the banks to close their branches, saying: “I think you are asking me something that is not in the purview of health.

“Health will make health suggestions. They will be considered by the Cabinet, and they will be considered by the Task Force and, ultimately, by the Prime Minister, and a determination will be made. Obviously nothing that we do is going to not have consequences.” 

The House of Assembly is scheduled to meet this coming Monday to debate the need to extend the existing the emergency orders beyond March 31. Mr Bethel said: “I can let Bahamians know that we are in close consultation with the Opposition, and they agree that we should follow the medical advice of the medical professionals.

“At the meeting we held with them a few days ago the strong advice of the medical practitioners who are leading this fight was that we must extend the curfew for at least another 30 days.”