Update: Chamber of Commerce pushes back on vax shutdown
Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — “The private sector is opposed to the 3-day [ASG] Stand Down and its accompanying restricted movement order” for the government’s planned mass COVID-19 vaccination, declared American Samoa Chamber of Commerce chairwoman, Luisa Kuaea in a Nov. 11th letter to COVID-19 Task Force chairman, Lt. Gov. Talauega Eleasalo Ale.
The task force mentioned in its news release last week following a meeting on Monday of the planned 3-day mass vaccination for the first week of December — but no dates were mentioned.
However, information received late last week by Samoa News states that the dates for the planned vax shutdown — as discussed during the Nov. 8th task force meeting — is Dec. 1st to the 3rd, starting from the east-side, with the proposed plan — for example — to restrict people from traveling to or from the East side.
The proposed plan: Day one for the East Side, covers villages from Onenoa to Pago Pago; Day two, from Fagatogo to Pavaiai along with Aasu/Aoloau; and Day 3, the final day, from Vaitogi to Fagamalo. Concern was voiced during the meeting on the impact the shut-down will have on the private sector.
The Chamber of Commerce chair informed Talauega that recently, select members of the task force proposed that ASG close for three consecutive days to conduct another mass vaccination drive to achieve the 90% herd immunity goal.
“Sadly, the Chamber was told their attendance was not needed at the meeting wherein that proposal was crafted,” Kuaea, who is also a task force member said.
She informed Talauega that: “Grave concerns have resurfaced that ASG is returning to its pattern of excluding stakeholders from the table, and, consequently, numerous businesses and residents are likely to suffer unnecessarily.”
And she raised two questions for the task force chair: Was there an economic impact assessment to understand the repercussions or viability of this stand down strategy?; and, Is it fiscally responsible to restrict movement, close schools and community health centers, and such during the busiest season of commerce?
“If due diligence was given to such considerations, we believe it would become evident to policymakers that a 3-day stand down of ASG is not in the best interest of our fragile economy,” she wrote to Talauega.
Last Wednesday, she said, several influential business owners from the Chamber of Commerce, along with Reps. Sam Meleisea and Andra Samoa, met with local Homeland Security director, Samana Semo Ve’ave’a and Health director, Motusa Tuileama Nua, who are members of the task force.
“The meeting was purported to be an opportunity for the business community to weigh in on the proposed stand down strategy,” she said, but “the meeting felt somewhat like the afterthought of a foregone conclusion. We sincerely hope that is not the case.”
She then made the Chamber’s position clear — the private sector is opposed to the 3-day Stand Down and shared with Talauega a few of the impacts of an ASG 3-day shutdown.
REDUCED EMPLOYEE TURNOUT
She explained that when government services stand down, it affects business operations everywhere. For example, when schools are closed on short notice, parents employed in the private sector are forced to decide between staying home to care for their children or going to work to make ends meet.
“This was evident during the measles epidemic and the government stand down then, wherein ANZ Bank was forced to close one of its branches due to all of the employees that did not show up for work,” she explained.
Kuaea noted that federal law requires ANZ to submit a 30-day notice prior to closing its doors for any reason. And a 3-day stand down, again, is likely to repeat the reduced employee turnout for ANZ Bank and many other businesses.
(Samoa News understands that the federal law — referred to by Kuaea — applies only to ANZ, which is insured by the U.S Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation — and not the ASG owned Territorial Bank of American Samoa, which is not FDIC insured.)
OVER-TIME PAY OF ESSENTIAL DEPARTMENTS
According to the Chamber chairwoman, often times when ASG is closed and essential departments are required to remain open, private companies end up having to pay for the employees’ “overtime” for having to work during ASG closures.
“One example of this is seen at the Port Administration and the ocean freight industry,” she said and explained that currently, the long-term schedule shows a vessel from the U.S calling at Port of Pago Pago towards the mid/ end of Thanksgiving week.
She said that an ASG stand down on the dates proposed would mean that customers will have to wait a week for their merchandise or pay overtime for Port employees to work during the stand down.
“While other ASG employees may be compensated during the 3-day stand down, who will pay for the overtime of ASG employees in essential departments that have to remain open?” she asked.
COST TO PRIVATE CONTRACTORS
She said ASG has contracted with several private companies for a number of projects for different departments. And halting work on government related projects is “extremely costly for businesses”.
For example, she said Fletcher Construction Co. has undertaken contracts that are funded by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency. And the contracts have “Time is of the Essence '' clauses that specify damages for late completion.
“These contracts are for critical government infrastructure projects where private companies have now obligated substantial resources in terms of plant, equipment, and expatriate specialized management and engineering personnel,” she explained.
Kuaea posed 3 important questions: Will ASG cover these costs during a 3-day stand down? Will ASG cover the contractual damages for delaying completion of these projects? Is ASG aware of its exposure to these liabilities?
The task force chair was informed by Kuaea that Fletcher’s entire workforce is fully vaccinated.
TRANSPORTATION AND FUEL DISRUPTIONS
“Our fuel supply is the main energy source that powers our vehicles, ships, planes, generators, machines, and equipment in the territory,” she reminded the lieutenant governor. “Pacific Energy stated that if they are required to stand down, the public’s fuel supply will not last beyond a day.”
“There is insufficient storage for fuel at the various gas stations on the island and with ASPA. As noted with other private businesses, Pacific Energy’s entire workforce is fully vaccinated,” she added.
Kuaea said that it’s understood that the proposed stand down will include a restricted movement order, which the Department of Public Safety is to enforce.
“If this restricted movement order includes traffic stops to enforce compliance, or review vaccination cards, major traffic congestion is certain,” she argued. “That enforcement and traffic congestion over the 3-day stand down is sure to spike frustration and cause long delays for everyone traveling the main corridors.
She pointed out that this congestion will also affect businesses, depress commerce, delay the delivery of goods and services, increase operating costs, and impede access to emergency services such as EMS, Fire, Police, and LBJ Medical Center.
“What will happen to individuals who live on the east side but work on the west side of the island? Or vice versa? Will their families be able to survive the stand down if they are unable to get to work for 3 days? Many of the StarKist workers are bussed in to Pago Pago. Will they be able to travel to work for those 3 days?” she asked.
Samoa News will report later this week on solutions offered by the Chamber, whose concerns about the impact of a three-day shut-down have also been echoed by private sector representatives who told Samoa News that a three-day shut down also means a loss of pay for their employees who would be forced not to go to work — if travel movement on the road is restricted.