It’s not about faith, it’s about choice
The Bermuda Chamber of Commerce is currently lobbying Government for amendments to the Public Holidays Act, 1947 — yes, the 1947 Act which still governs how and when we conduct business in the 21st Century.
Under the terms of the Act, every Sunday is determined to be a ‘Public Holiday’ and in accordance with exemptions to the Act “shops having a total retail floor space area of 2,500 square feet or more, (may only open) between the hours of 1pm and 6pm on any public holiday, except Christmas Day and Good Friday”. On those two days no stores may open without an exemption.
While the concept and observance of a ‘holiday’ originates from a religious premise (a Holy Day) the Chamber contends that it is no longer appropriate, or necessary for Government to legislate the suspension of commerce in this manner.
Similarly, it is clear that the 2009 Amendment to the Act which removed the requirement to purchase a Trading Licence and implemented the square footage rule, was designed to protect smaller ‘Mom & Pop’ convenient stores, as it was believed they would not be able to compete against the larger, often less expensive box stores.
They were right, but the plan actually backfired. Today there are no more than a handful of successful Mom & Pop stores still operating in Bermuda. Why? We believe it is because the amendment to the Act simply changed consumer habits. There was no longer a need to run out to the corner store in the morning for a forgotten item because very quickly we became accustomed to the fact that we could get everything we needed, if we just waited until 1pm.
Based on the validity of this argument the Chamber contends that allowing stores, of any size, to open in response to market demand would actually help smaller businesses not hinder them. Because once again, it would alter consumer habits and shopping trends, making weekend shopping a two-day experience; thus creating volume and critical mass, which could only benefit everyone concerned.
Law of averages suggests that, if there are more shops open on any given street, then more shoppers will frequent that street, and more shoppers means more business for everyone.
By my calculations this Act has already been amended 19 times; one can only presume that in each instance it was in response to changing times. And times they are a changing.
This is not an issue of faith versus commerce; it is a question of choice. Why — as an example — should a practicing Adventist (there are approximately 3,500 in Bermuda) not have the same choice to shop at any time on Sunday, as other Christians do on a Saturday?
What if a parent has no choice in their crazy busy life but to shop on Sunday, why should they be discriminated against for being a good parent and spending Saturday at gymnastics, football and ballet rather than in a store buying food or clothing?
The Chamber advocates that every resident and guest be given the choice to decide how they spend their weekends. Similarly, retailers should have the option to open according to market need and demand, and correspondingly, their employees should be given the opportunity to work as many days or hours as they so choose.
Today’s Bermuda is not the Bermuda of post-war 1947, the family unit has definitely changed, and our lives are more complex and stressful. Visitor expectations have also changed and while it may once have been seen as ‘quaint’ to roll up the streets Saturday evening and hang ‘closed’ sign on the door ‘till Monday, we have all bourn witness to the fact that Bermuda has lost significant ground to other similar island destinations which are far more accommodating and exciting.
You have only to walk along Front Street on a Sunday morning when a ship is in port in Dockyard to see our guests rambling around aimlessly looking for something to do, only to board the return ferry and leave the City as quickly as possible. Ironically, there are often employees in the stores already preparing for 1pm, but because of the law they are prohibited from opening their doors and making our guests feel welcome.
And what of our own overseas expectations? Do we not as well seasoned travellers expect the countries we visit to be open for business at our convenience?
An interesting closing observation; while the Act may serve to govern how most of us do business, it does not impede Government or their Wedco quango. Regardless of the Public Holidays Act, 1947 and the Liquor Licencing Act, 1936 all businesses at the LF Wade International Airport are required under their tenancy agreement, to be open 365 days a year regardless of their size, what they sell, and whether or not it is a Public Holiday. Wedco imposes similar stipulations on their tenants.
Bermuda operates, or claims to operate in a global economy, we want to be taken seriously on the world stage and we want to be competitive, nimble and welcoming. Or do we?
In the coming weeks the Bermuda Chamber of Commerce will be undertaking robust community consultation process to ascertain the public’s response to our lobbing efforts to amend the current legislation. To be clear, we are advocating for two precise changes to the Act: 1) Sunday should not be deemed by law to be a Public Holiday and 2) that no business should be restricted from trading based on the size of their premises.
A series of Town Hall meetings will be announced next week.
Joanne MacPhee is the Executive Director, Bermuda Chamber of Commerce