Owner keeps eye on virus as store hits milestone
As a graduate in bacteriology and immunology, business owner Sheilagh Robertson kept a close watch as the coronavirus emerged in China and began to spread across Asia.
The former science teacher said: “My awareness started to build in February. I watched it spread to South Korea and Hong Kong, and I could see the extensive measures that were being taken in China.
“I don’t recall from SARS such an extensive crackdown on isolating people. When I saw that, I knew that people there were taking it seriously.”
When the virus quickly found its way to the United States, Ms Robertson was convinced that Bermuda would not be immune to the impact of Covid-19.
The 70-year-old retailer owns luggage and leather goods store The Harbourmaster on Washington Lane, Hamilton, which last week marked 45 years in business.
She closed the shop on March 16 after discussions with son Andrew, and with her three employees, all of whom are in their seventies and have worked at the store for more than 20 years.
“Because we have been together so long, they understand where I am coming from,” Ms Robertson said. “My goal is to come out of the other side of this and have my staff with me.”
On a business level, she quickly cancelled future shipments of brands including Kipling, putting them back a month, and vowing to review the situation then. “I didn’t want inventory to pile up at a freight forwarder somewhere,” she said.
Before going into business, Ms Robertson earned a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Western Ontario, and taught at The Berkeley Institute where she started the human biology GCE class.
She said: “I understand how diseases are transmitted and how viruses work. This is something that is unprecedented in our lifetimes, something of this magnitude, and it is very hard for us to wrap our minds around it. Viruses are an unseen enemy. We can’t see it and because of that, we can’t put it in context.”
She added: “If we don’t allow flights to come in for a fairly long period, we will have a better chance at controlling the disease locally because if people are isolated, they don’t spread diseases. It is the same for Bermuda — if we are isolated, we have a greater chance of controlling the spread of the infection.
“A lot of people seem to think ‘oh, this is all blown out of proportion, it’s not that bad, I feel fine’, but what is very challenging with this disease is that people can carry the disease without knowing they are sick. That is what makes it so easy to spread.”
She noted that Bermuda has a long history of dealing with disease, dating back to yellow fever epidemics in the 1800s. A strict mosquito control programme, she said, is “probably what has helped keep Bermuda free of cases of the Zika virus”.
Ms Robertson added: “Unfortunately, Covid-19 as a respiratory illness is transmitted directly human-to-human so quarantine and isolation and good hygiene are the only way to control a disease for which there is currently no immunity in the population.”
She and her husband, Gerald Simons, have friends in New York who are hospitalised with Covid-19, and two nieces who are emergency room doctors in Alberta. Ms Robertson’s cousin is a doctor in British Columbia, while cousins in Scotland are self-isolating in lockdown.
Ms Robertson said: “It is truly mind-boggling how fast this disease has spread worldwide and the economic impact is beyond calculation at this point. The only consolation is that modern technology and state-of-the-art science will enable the development of a vaccine over the next year. By then a significant part of the population will also have developed immunity as a result of exposure.”
When the pandemic eases, she intends to re-open The Harbourmaster, so named after her husband gave her that nickname due to an interest in the ships coming and going from Hamilton Harbour.
Like other retailers, she has survived business interruptions and downturns in the past, but said: “I don’t think anyone has seen anything like this before.”
Ms Robertson said: “Retail has been really struggling for the last year in particular, so this is a real existential crisis for many people. Fortunately, because I have been around so long, I do have a little reserve to call on whereas for a new business, having taken out a big loan to get started, having the bottom drop out of revenue would put them in a difficult place.
“The real question for all of us is how long this is going to last. Anyone who thinks things will be over in two weeks is not functioning in the real world.”
She predicted: “I really think it is going to be three months, maybe longer.”
In addition to the shop’s “fabulous” present employees, Ms Robertson has over her years in business employed students from the island’s public and private high schools. “I regard them all as part of my extended family,” she said.
Of her “very loyal” customers, she said: “The thing I enjoy about it is seeing the pleasure that my customers get out of using things that I have sold them over the years.
“Some families have bought luggage from me when they were students, and now their children are going off to college with luggage from me as well.”
Ms Robertson said she has “every intention of getting through this” and hopes that everyone else is able to stay in business, too.
She said: “We need a healthy business community in Bermuda, and we need a healthy retail sector.”
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