The Malta Independent 25 October 2020, Sunday

Indepth: Malta Chamber of SMEs proposals to help businesses find footing post COVID-19

INDEPTH online Friday, 8 May 2020, 11:28 Last update: about 6 months ago

The Malta Chamber of SMEs has issued a number of proposals for the government to consider for future financial aid packages in order to help businesses find their footing as Malta slowly emerges out of its COVID-19 restrictions, CEO Abigail Mamo said.

She was speaking during an interview with The Malta Independent's Media Consultant Rachel Attard during this week's edition of Indepth.

Last week, the government gave permission to non-essential shops to reopen after the number of COVID-19 cases became more manageable.

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In the interview, Mamo was asked about the feedback that the Chamber has received during the first week since this relaxation of measures took place and on what plans are in store for the future of Malta's businesses.

"Discussions are underway with the government for another set of financial aid for businesses to get back on their feet," Mamo said. The government should be announcing them in the near future.

The plans that the Chamber presented to the government cover the short, mid and long term due to the unpredictable nature of the current situation, which requires a reactive approach in order to act in line with the changes that take place.

"COVID-19 created a lot of awareness on certain aspects that can be beneficial to businesses, consumers and citizens alike," Mamo said. This includes putting emphasis on the local market, investing in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and electronics, as well as urging businesses to invest in online methods of shopping and payments. 

Mamo feels that this pandemic has shaken up the business world, so much so that the way we normally think about things has become inapplicable as every decision we take comes with its own list of unknowns - "so, we have to make a lot of adjustments and this week was full of them."

 

Feedback on the first week of reopening non-essential shops

Mamo said that the announcement to reopen the shops came as a shock to a number of businesses and their employees who were not expecting to head back to work so quickly. The announcement for the reopening of non-essential shops was made on 1 May, and the shops reopened on 4 May.

However, it seems that most businesses have adapted well to it already as employees are sharing their work responsibilities.

Having said that, she pointed out that businesses have had to face some major challenges and some 'teething' logistical problems are still being dealt with even though a week has already gone by - "our normal logic does not apply here, so we really have to think outside the box about everything."

An example of this is finding creative alternatives for customers to try on clothes since that is not allowed at the moment, such as using the online shopping method of trying on clothes at home and having the option of returning them later on. 

 

Asked to give an explanation on what businesses are actually gaining from reopening now, when most people are still hesitant to go shopping as usual, Mamo said that most businesses had to deal with expenses when they opened since, as expected, they did not perform very well "but we have to start from somewhere."

Some businesses have seen a slight change in turnover, but luxury establishments, like jewellery shops, are not doing as well because people are focusing on necessities at the moment. Shops that target the elderly are also suffering seeing that their customers are being encouraged to stay at home and are not allowed inside.

Nonetheless, on a more positive note, most business owners seem content with having the chance of gaining something financially, as the idea of not being able to do anything has been quite a depressing situation for them.

"Coming out of this crisis is not going to be an easy journey, and each stage will have its defects but we need to take these first steps as the longer we stretch it out, the longer it will take us to come out of it," Mamo said.

She emphasised this point when the discussion turned onto those businesses who decided not to open their doors during this past week. "We seem to be stuck in a mind-frame that this will all blow over soon but this is definitely not the case, so we have to learn how to live with this situation and work around it."

Mamo believes that this is the time to put in the effort to gradually move forward by investing in initiatives that will enhance performance in the long-term. She said that there are businesses who are already introducing innovative measures and this is what will put them at the front of the competition in the future.

Nonetheless, she acknowledged that there are shop owners who could not open their businesses because they classify as vulnerable individuals. The Chamber has discussed this with public health entities and the directive was that vulnerable owners will be aided through the government's employment subsidy while they should have someone replace them if possible.

 

Reaction to guidelines provided by health authorities

Before reopening, businesses received a document from the health authorities with a number of guidelines, such as the mandatory use of masks and hand sanitisers as well as the directive to allow any vulnerable individuals to enter their establishment. While hygiene measures are welcomed, Mamo said that the latter has caused a lot of problems and the Chamber does not agree with it due to the uncomfortable situations it created. 

She explained that one cannot know exactly if a person is pregnant or if they suffer from some type of condition which is not visible to the naked eye. Some businesses were asking customers for their ID cards which was not something that was received well due to data protection.

"What kind of obligations are business owners expected to fulfil exactly and how can they do so?" Mamo contemplated. "These are sensitive topics which cannot be dealt with in such a manner. When it comes to public health, the government should have the right resources in its hands to ensure that these things do not occur."

She believes that businesses should not be weighed down with this kind of burden considering all the challenges they are already facing.

Among these challenges, there is the issue of keeping up with renting one's business establishment while earning close to no income. On the day the relaxation of measures was announced, the Chamber of SMEs released a statement in which they urged landlords to understand that it is far from business as usual and that their effort to regulate rent prices will continue to be required at this stage.

 

"We wanted to raise awareness so that businesses 'live to fight another day' because if they permanently close their doors, landlords will go bankrupt, followed by banks and thus the entire economy," Mamo said.

 

Proposals presented to the government to help businesses reopen

As previously indicated, the Chamber is highlighting the importance of strengthening Malta's local market as without it employment rates would crumble and our economy will suffer.

"Since Malta is dependent on imported goods, it had to pay higher prices due to COVID-19 restrictions and one has to consider the fact that there might be a lack of supplies, which is what caused the supermarket panic at the start of the outbreak. Therefore, it is important for Malta to be able to stand on its own two feet and not be as dependent on importation," Mamo noted.

Additionally, consumers are now more receptive to online methods of shopping and payments since they have had to stay home for long periods of time. The Chamber believes that Malta does not afford to lose this effect and that the government should ensure that businesses keep on investing in these services so that Malta's market does not keep lagging behind other countries which have already taken this step.

"We are also suggesting for the government to invest in AI and electronics as other countries are doing so that the COVID-19 affects are better controlled, and we can head back to normality sooner than later," Mamo said. "For example, we are looking into 'tourism corridors' between Malta, where the COVID-19 situation is mellowing out, and other countries that are in a similar situation."

She acknowledged that certain businesses might not be able to invest in such measures without some kind financial aid but she believes that "it is important for our market to become future proof."

"We thought that a situation like this would never happen but now we know that it is possible, so we have to consider that this might happen again in the future. This is why we need schemes that help businesses make such an investment as the economy will not bounce back without investment. The government has a huge responsibility to ensure that our economy is revitalised so it has to be a guide for businesses on how to make these investments through their own resources while providing them with any necessary aid."

Asked about which businesses she thinks should be next in line to reopen, Mamo said that next step would be open-services businesses like hairdressers, but this all depends on how the situation develops in the coming weeks - "once the health authorities give us the go-ahead we will immediately encourage these businesses to provide their services."


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