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…staff utilising walkie talkies and lookout men
…Health Minister urges the public to report curfew breakers
By Lisa Hamilton
Some entertainment and food spots in Georgetown are strategically evading the police way past the COVID-19 curfew by communicating with walkie-talkies, advising customers to park away from the business and keeping control of their noise level, all to remain hidden in plain sight.
While well-thought-out strategies are being used by some businesses, at other locations businesses seem just not to care. They are out in the open and police presence at these locations is scarce to non-existent. Going undercover in recent days, Village Voice News reporters were able to gather photographs and audio from several of these locations where persons were partying in large numbers, many without facemasks.
One area that stuck out like a sore thumb for being consistent and dotted with curfew breakers was along Sheriff Street. While large establishments along the route like the OMG Restaurant and Pizza Hut were closed, several burger stands were operating as per normal. The majority of these burger stands are operated by non-nationals. However, they are largely supported beyond curfew by Guyanese, clustered in groups of four or five long after the 10:30 PM cut off period.
On the nights visited, there were no efforts by these businesses to appear closed nor did reporters perceive fear of possible police presence. When one of the news entity’s undercover reporters feigned interest in the street food, they were assured that burgers and more were hot and available if interested. In between the stretch of burger stands, all lights were on at the Panda Chinese Restaurant after curfew. Three customers leaned on the counter inside awaiting their orders with others outside.
However, what was noticed was that some of the persons strolling along Sheriff Street were refueling after coming out of a large, red, metal gate several meters away. Moving closer to the door, the undercover reporters found it interesting that persons in threes and twos were entering periodically, giving away that it was likely an entertainment spot.
Reporters approached a man outside the establishment — the Outback Restaurant and Bar — after 11:00 PM to inquire whether the establishment was opened for business. They were given the greenlight. They were told that it was Karaoke Night and entry was free. They were also asked to park further up the road so that there was no suspicion by police that the business was open. The man, afterall, was on the lookout. “Bigga, yuh gah wuk with meh. You can’t park no where here. If yuh want yuh can park over deh. I gon watch yuh car fuh yuh, right?” the man said pointing the reporters to parking further up the road.
Asked whether police patrolled the location often, the man assured: “Yeah, but once they see car parked up over here or over deh, they does come. We moving all we customers back this side deh. We trying fuh avoid them. When they pass, they see the place clear, they does gone deh way.”
As the reporters prepared to exit the vehicle, they could hear the voice of another individual over a walkie talkie — formally, handheld transceiver— in the man’s hand. When the reporters neared the gate, the man alerted another via the communication device that customers were about to enter. Inside was a sight to behold. It was indeed karaoke night. An individual was singing at the top of her lungs in the center of the room as the audio track to a well-known oldies song accompanied her. Meanwhile, some who seemed to be friends of the individual were singing along. Others were simply standing, sitting at the bar or playing pools.
There were about 50 persons inside the establishment and no masks were counted besides that on the faces of the reporters. Immediately upon entering, the reporters were greeted by the establishment’s staff who noted their choice of beverage. From about 11:30 PM to later, business at the location operated as per pre-COVID-19 conditions, save for one point when a worker at the establishment asked a group of girls singing too loudly to tone down.
When exiting the establishment, there are other procedures that apply. A man at the internal end of the gate first communicates with the lookout man via walkie talkie before he allows customers out. Without the go-ahead of the lookout that the coast is clear, the man on the inside does not open the gate. When the undercover reporters left the establishment, there was no indication that they would be wrapping up any time soon.
At other locations in central Georgetown, the reporters noticed similar-looking men on the lookout at entertainment spots but they could not verify whether similar operations were taking place.
Unlike the Outback Restaurant and Bar, over at the Sleep-In International Hotel and Casino, about 40 persons or less were seen after curfew gathering immediately outside the location. They were out in the open and did not seem bothered that it was beyond the national curfew. Though the reporters did not enter the building, they took photographs of the gathering outside.
The environment was well lit. Some persons gathered in or near vehicles, some lined the street corner drinking while others clustered at a burger stand awaiting their orders. The reporters stayed for a while at the location and no police patrol was noticed during that period.
It is unclear whether police patrolled the location on the night of March 29, 2021. Compared to Kitty, Campbellville and along Vlissengen Road just nearby, reporters noticed several police patrol cars and were even stopped briefly by a police officer.
Only two weeks ago, the proprietor of the Sleep-In Bar and Casino, Clifton Bacchus, two bartenders and several other persons were arrested from that location on Church Street. The Village Voice News is yet to confirm whether the individuals gathered outside the location are being discouraged from doing so or whether they remain beyond curfew hours because entertainment is being facilitated within.
Along the seawall, where persons previously gathered in large numbers, had fewer persons that outside the Sleep-In Hotel. In fact, the only persons noticed on the night of the two-day Phagwah holiday were vendors wrapping up their sales around the curfew cut-off period.
Following the undercover quest, the Village Voice News questioned Minister of Health, Dr. Frank Anthony about his message to businesses evading law enforcement while breaking the COVID-19 Emergency Measures. During his daily COVID-19 update he responded to the questions while adding that the Ministry is also aware of persons advertising house parties and gathering in large numbers at their homes.
He stressed the importance for such persons to understand that when they encourage lawbreaking, not only are they endangering their health but that of others. “Is having a party more important than protecting people’s health? I sometimes marvel at the people who are doing this because it’s obvious to me that they don’t understand the conditions in which we’re living right now…they are contributing, they are catalyzing, the transmission of this disease by having these house parties and trying to evade [the police],” Dr. Anthony said.
He implored members of the public to make it their duty to report to the police businesses which are breaching the COVID-19 Emergency Measures and those sneaking operation beyond the curfew. He said: “I don’t know at what point this message would sink into people. It is about your individual responsibility, you have to to understand and take measures to protect yourselves. If people have information on these things they should report it to the police so that the police can take action.”
Businesses must play by the rule
Meanwhile, President Irfaan Ali also underscored his concern about the same in a message to the nation. He said: “Businesses must understand that it is critical for them to adhere to the 40 per cent occupancy; to adhere to the protocols that customers should follow while using their establishment and to ensure they protect their fellow Guyanese brothers and sisters.”
He said that the National COVID-19 Task Force has been advised to pursue charges against owners of establishments found in breach of the COVID-19 guidelines. Now, it’s up to the Guyana Police Force (GPF) to stay one step ahead of the well-organised COVID-19 curfew breakers and the establishments too brave to care.