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Hawaii moving forward with a cautious, ‘phased’ reopening effort

Gov. David Ige’s announcement Wednesday that he approved requests by the counties to allow some low-contact businesses to reopen means Hawaii is cautiously joining the other states with the lowest COVID-19 infection rates as they begin a step-by-step process to restart their local economies.

The three states with the lowest per capita coronavirus infection rates are Montana, Alaska and Hawaii, and Montana ended its stay-home order on Sunday, allowing businesses to reopen and churches to resume services. Alaska has relaxed its in-state travel restrictions, and allowed restaurants, personal care services and other businesses to open as early as last Friday.

But the reopening process will be very different for Hawaii, which controlled the spread of the new coronavirus largely by cutting off almost all of the normal daily flow of tens of thousands of tourists into the islands, and forgoing all of the money those visitors would normally spend here.

U.S. Rep. Ed Case remarked Monday on “the incredible irony” of Hawaii being at the very top of the list of states that have effectively contained the virus, while this state ranks at the very bottom of states in terms of the dire economic consequences of the pandemic.

“We’ve accomplished quite a bit in the public health area at the expense of our number one industry, we all know that,” he said. Ige’s administration is now attempting to repair some of that damage, but it won’t be easy without the tourists, who probably won’t be returning in large numbers anytime soon.

Ige said Hawaii will use a “phased approach” to reopening, starting with a move by Honolulu that goes into effect essentially Friday to allow real estate companies, auto dealerships, mobile service providers and automated service providers to reopen. Golf courses, some parks, and one-on-one services such as tutoring also will be allowed to reopen, he said.

The busiest state parks will not reopen yet because the way that crowds normally gather at those parks “does not allow us to open it in a safe way,” he said.

The state and counties will weigh whether and when to allow additional businesses to open based on the amount of contact between employees and customers, the number of customers who will gather in the areas where they are to be served, and whether steps can be taken to reduce the risk that each operation will spread the coronavirus, Ige said.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green said Wednesday that people who have office jobs that allow for social distancing “will be kind of a ripe area to have people go back to work. That’s a lot of people.”

However, Ige warned that even this limited relaxing of the pandemic restrictions may be canceled later if there is a widely anticipated “second wave,” of COVID-19 cases here and around the world. And he described steps his administration is taking to strengthen the mandatory two-week quarantine designed to discourage visitors from coming here.

The state’s testing and contact tracing programs have reached the point where “we feel comfortable” beginning to relax the local restrictions, Ige said, but “we do believe that a comprehensive system that would allow us to bring back visitors, for example, would have to be more extensive.”

He also said the state is collecting operational guidelines that outline best practices in the era of coronavirus for restaurants, retail operations and a variety of other businesses to allow them to operate safely.

“The reality is that living with an infectious disease like COVID-19 creates a new normal,” Ige said. “Life will not be back to what it was prior to COVID-19 until there is a vaccine, or until there is treatment that really reduces the health risks of the virus to an acceptable level.”

Carl Bonham, executive director of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization (UHERO), warned Monday that businesses will have to spend more from now on for things such as cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment, and also have to reconfigure their operations in ways that mean they will be serving fewer customers at a time.

Another key component of the recovery for some businesses will be negotiations with landlords, Bonham said. Retail outlets or other businesses that have been unable to pay their rent may need to cope with extra debt because of overdue rent.

“Some businesses simply will not reopen because they won’t have the ability to pay their back rent or they won’t be able to make enough revenue to cover their costs,” Bonham said. “Obviously the negotiations and conversations with the landlords are paramount.”

“All those things mean lower levels of profitability,” he said. UHERO is assuming a slow pace of recovery because “some businesses won’t be able to resume profitability when they face higher costs and lower revenues. The math won’t work.”

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