Hawaii can feel some confidence — but not complacency — with the slow reboot of many retail businesses that launched on Thursday on Kauai and Hawaii island, with Oahu and Maui to follow on May 15.
Hawaii is one of only a few states that conform with guidelines for reopening put forward by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It has enough hospital capacity, testing and contact tracing to manage the very few new cases logged daily for the past two weeks. Hitting the pause button on tourism certainly helped; there are a few visitors who evaded the 14-day quarantine the state imposed on airline arrivals, but so far reports of coronavirus infections have not spiked.
But once shops that have been shuttered for months begin to resume some level of business and residents begin to circulate more freely, all bets are off. The state needs to act aggressively to ramp up testing and contact tracing capacity, to make sure Hawaii stays ahead of the curve.
Even if the public is scrupulously attentive to social distancing and hygiene, even if the retail employees maintain a challenging degree of sanitation and traffic control, this highly contagious virus inevitably will infect more people.
The reboot, welcome as it is, got off to a rocky start, even before Day 1. Gov. David Ige on Tuesday announced the lifting of restrictions as if it were to take effect statewide, starting Thursday. It was clear from the Honolulu and Maui mayors, Kirk Caldwell and Mike Victorino, that retailers in their more populous counties could not be ready to open on such short notice.
Of particular concern were the shopping malls, with large gathering spaces that complicate efforts to deter people from loitering in close proximity. It’s discouraging to see the disconnect in Ige’s announcement, so soon after pledges of close coordination between the state and the counties.
State and county officials did work through that snafu, but now they must help shop owners navigate the difficult startup terrain. Fortunately, there are some promising developments.
In terms of preparation assistance, Retail Merchants of Hawai‘i President Tina Yamaki said her statewide association has convened a committee that is developing guidance for the state’s retailers.
Yamaki had no specifics yet but said it’s based on the National Retail Federation’s advisory (nrf.com/resources/operation-open-doors). That checklist outlines a range of business considerations, ranging from social distancing and cleaning protocols to legal issues such as bringing staff back from furlough.
Yamaki acknowledged that many businesses already find themselves underwater with unpaid rents and mortgages, and some will be hard-pressed to front the money needed to set up their stores for social distancing.
She added shoppers won’t soon feel comfortable with shopping in sufficient numbers to offset these costs. But the guidance, endorsed by city and state officials, should help.
What would help boost public confidence in safety would be seeing state officials develop a truly robust system of testing and contact tracing. That imperative gained some fuel on Thursday when U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz announced the allotment of $3.8 million to ramp up testing for COVID-19 through the state’s community health centers, and to increase staffing for tracing the contacts of those who test positive.
Sadly, the stores face a long road before business returns to anything approaching normalcy after this unprecedented disaster. However, arming the state and its retail sector with the needed tools to manage the outbreak is the right way to begin the journey.