Once-bustling Waikiki is so quiet now that when Kathryn Henski stands on her balcony, the “Call of the Wild” comes to mind.
Lions are roaring and monkeys are hooting at the nearby Honolulu Zoo. Birds are singing happy tunes.
“The animal kingdom is coming alive. Otherwise, it’s pretty quiet and peaceful. Nobody can complain about the loud mufflers anymore — nobody’s out,” said Henski, who is a Waikiki Neighborhood Board member. “It’s a ghost town with few exceptions.”
Prior to government crackdowns to stop the spread of COVID-19, Waikiki was the heartbeat of the state’s economy, contributing 6% to the state’s gross domestic product. Locals complained of overtourism, and the anti-development crowd warned any more development would turn it into a concrete jungle.
Now, the region is barely pulsing as the state tries to stop the spread of COVID-19 cases, which Saturday jumped to 151. There were 29 new cases — 19 from Honolulu.
Strict social distancing practices designed to flatten the new coronavirus curve have slowed tourism to a trickle. On Friday, the second day of the state’s 14-day quarantine for all passengers arriving on trans-Pacific fights, only 159 visitors came into Oahu, and probably not all were Waikiki bound.
“We sent out an all-hands-on-deck to get visitors out of there by Thursday,” said Jack Richards, president and CEO of Pleasant Holidays, a Hawaii wholesale travel seller. “The airlines are reducing capacity — soon I don’t think any of them will even be flying.”
The mass exodus of visitors, along with a desire to support containment efforts, has prompted more than 100 hotels statewide, many of them in Waikiki, to temporarily suspend operations.
Stephany Sofos, who has lived in Waikiki since 1968, said there aren’t any historical comparisons for what Waikiki is experiencing.
“I’ve witnessed the Vietnam War, Hurricane Iniki in 1982, the 1987 stock market crash, the 1990 savings and loan crash, Hurricane Iwa in 1992, 9/11, the 2007 and 2008 financial crisis. But I’ve never seen Waikiki brought to its knees,” Sofos said. “It will come back, but it’s going to take lots of time.”
The current situation is a Catch-22 for Waikiki hotel workers, who must balance financial security against their health.
Virgil Kodep, who works as a night cleaner at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, was still working Saturday, but wonders for how long.
“It’s just empty. On Thursday occupancy was 13% to 14%. On Friday, it had dropped to 3.5%,” Kodep said. “Most of the towers are closed. We only have Rainbow Tower open now,” Kodep said. “Last night there were only five on our shift. It’s spooky.”
Aina Iglesias, a guest service agent for DoubleTree by Hilton Alana, said the property will suspend operations Wednesday, leaving her and most of her coworkers temporarily unemployed for at least 60 days. The property’s occupancy was as low as 5% the other day, Iglesias said.
“On one hand, we don’t want to catch the virus. But how will I pay my rent and utilities?” Iglesias said.
With the temporary layoff, Iglesias won’t have to feel fear when she checks in a guest who isn’t maintaining 6 feet of social distancing. It also means that she can start visiting her Mililani family again once she’s been away from visitors for 14 days.
“I’ve been staying away to keep them safe,” she said.
Home safety is a big priority for many Waikiki residents, too. Since Gov. David Ige issued a statewide stay-at-home order Monday, Waikiki Neighborhood Board President Robert Finley said he and many of the district’s residents have stayed cooped up.
On Friday, he ventured out to get a take-out meal at the Elks Club and was shocked at how few people were on the streets. The district’s stores, usually teeming with visitors and residents, were closed just about everywhere.
“Not a single tour bus was staged on Royal Hawaiian Avenue and there weren’t any crowds in front of Duty Free Shopping. The always -full Cheesecake Factory was empty,” he said.
The pavilions that line the beach park on Kalakaua Avenue were vacant and taped off. Finley saw only a few joggers in Kapiolani Park, which was mostly empty except for a few homeless individuals. Save for the occasional surfer, the beach parks were empty.
Finley said the Princess Kaiulani and Moana Surfrider hotels were locked up.
“Even a few ABC Stores were closed and there were empty parking stalls on Ala Wai Boulevard,” Finley said. “If we really have 20,000 to 25,000 industry workers in Waikiki, there are very few working today. Sad!”
Finley said what he saw Friday in Waikiki was worse than 9/11 when all the planes stopped flying.
“After 9/11, it wasn’t this empty and we knew where we stood, ” he said. “During 9/11, we were at war and the harm was visible. Now, we’ve got invisible stuff attacking us. We’re waiting for something to bite us. It’s scary and people are taking it serious.”
Henski, who has a son with medical issues, took it so seriously that she put her college-aged daughter, Robin, in a separate studio for a 14-day quarantine even though she arrived home Sunday before Ige’s quarantine order applied.
“We can’t take the risk. She was in Washington, D.C., where the hotels were telling people not to go outside or downtown because it had become dangerous,” Henski said.
David Moskowitz, who has lost his job at the BLT Steak Waikiki, said he feels less safe in Waikiki, too.
“I went and bought mace,” Moskowitz said. “I feel like I’m being sized up by people who are more desperate.”
The district’s homeless population has grown disconcertingly visible, he said.
“I’m seeing them all over the sidewalks and camping in tents on the beach in front of the Moana Surfrider, ” Moskowitz said.
But it’s not all doom and gloom in Waikiki. Many of the empty hotels are sharing food and prepared meals with the Waikiki Community Center, which has seen a steady increase in seniors who are experiencing food insecurity as neighborhood shopping spots close and fear keeps them at home.
Waikiki Beach Marriott Resort & Spa has suspended operations like many other hotels, but on Wednesday night the property began lighting just enough rooms to form a heart. The warm glow cast by the heart glimmers like a beacon of hope in a tourist destination that has gone dark.
There’s a peacefulness and beauty in Waikiki that wasn’t there before, said Carey Johnson, who lives in Waikiki and owns Custom Island Tours, a business profoundly impacted by the tourism collapse.
“The other day I heard a man whistling a tune and it was echoing against the buildings,” Johnson said. “I saw two ducks at sunset that had taken over a portion of Kuhio Beach. It was nice to look down the beach and see all the sand without rows of chairs or people. It would be great if it were like this more often — and we could actually get out there and enjoy it.”