In a best-case scenario, Hawaii’s economy should start to slowly recover this month, but 2020 will end with double-digit unemployment and the return of only about 75% of the economic activity lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the state House Select Committee on COVID-19 was told Monday.
Hawaii’s recovery over the next seven months depends on several assumptions, including the widespread availability of coronavirus testing, “our ability to ramp up contact tracing” and overall management of “the risk of reopening tourism gradually,” Carl Bonham, executive director of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization, told his fellow members of the committee Monday.
“It begins very slowly and builds over time as consumer activity increases and as we begin to get some tourism back later in the year,” Bonham said via videoconference. “By the end of the year, we anticipate the local economy having regained about 75% of the lost activity. We don’t get back to normal.”
The updated projections rely on several unknowns, including human behavior and better use of technology to trace visitors and others.
Hopefully, Bonham said, “We’re assuming that by the end of July we’ll begin to reopen some to tourism.”
And then August and September should see 28% of previous levels, leading up to “by about half by December,” Bonham said.
Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, “incident commander” of Hawaii’s coronavirus response, said an overall recovery plan is being finalized this week. But, without explanation, Hara said, “Not everything will be released to the public.”
The plan is based on several color-coded levels of reopening Hawaii’s economy and is likely to vary by county. Some counties could see different degrees compared with others.
The Hawaii Restaurant Association this week plans to propose local standards to reopen in-person dining based on national association guidelines that include tables 6 feet apart and booths that could include Plexiglas shields, in addition to empty booths to provide social distancing “just to ensure the customer’s confidence,” said Sheryl Matsuoka, executive director of the Hawaii Restaurant Association.
“When Gov. Ige gives us the green light, Hawaii restaurants are ready to open,” Matsuoka told her fellow committee members.
Tina Yamaki, president of the Retail Merchants of Hawaii, said her organization is adopting national association standards to island retailers, including mom-and- pops that might not reopen; apparel stores; grocery stores; and big-box retailers.
They face similar and different challenges, including the inability to ask customers why they are not wearing masks to widespread fears that customers wearing masks, sunglasses and ball caps could be criminals.
“We know there’s going to be an increase in crime coming in,” Yamaki said.
James Koshiba, co-founder of Hui Aloha, reiterated concerns of what he called an expected “wave” of unemployed and furloughed workers about to join Hawaii’s estimated 6,500 homeless population.
“There are even fewer options for even couch surfing now,” Koshiba told his fellow committee members.
There are some positive signs, such as federally backed Section 8 housing vouchers that may be more attractive to landlords, Koshiba said, and the potential to turn other federal aid into forgivable, no-interest loans to pay rent and mortgages.