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Editorial: New demands on Hawaii businesses will require more direct help from government

                                Some shops at Pearlridge Center’s Wai Makai were open for business Friday.
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Some shops at Pearlridge Center’s Wai Makai were open for business Friday.

Slow and steady wins the race toward reopening the Hawaii economy— and the “steady” part is every bit as important.

Some encouraging moves advancing that cause were made in the past week. More retail establishments, long closed as nonessential businesses, have made their tentative return to the marketplace.

It’s a changed landscape for commerce, of course — industry- recommended improvements to limit close encounters that would be risky in the midst of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic — but it’s commerce all the same.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell also last week signaled his proposal to push the envelope further by enabling restaurants to offer dine-in options starting June 5.

But some owners and employees, undoubtedly heartened by that prospect, surely were confused by the announcement, the same day, that Gov. David Ige planned to extend the “safer at home” restriction through June 30. Ige did leave the door open for further allowances within the boundaries of that emergency order, so an alignment easily could be in the cards.

But that convergence of plans needs to come quickly. As the reboot moves carefully forward, businesses rely on certainty and timeliness in the transition if they are to survive the past months of very little revenue. They don’t need any further misdirection over what, in fact, will be allowed.

That said, there is much-needed acknowledgement of the critical demands on small shops and restaurants hoping to welcome back more customers. The city has launched a $25 million program to help them cover the significant upgrades many will need to conduct business within distancing and sanitation guidelines.

And, along with his announced “Ho‘oulu i Honolulu” (“Restore Honolulu”) program, the mayor also proposed that dine-in options include an allowance for outdoor seating to spill onto sidewalks and other city-owned spaces. These could include a limited expansion into adjacent malls or even parks.

This seems a sensible idea, given Hawaii’s year-round tropical climate. This is a provision that should be reassessed upon resolution of the pandemic, but for the immediate term, it makes perfect sense to give restaurants a little extra space to accommodate diners.

Some expansion of these ideas, especially the aid to businesses, should be considered at the state level. The federal Paycheck Protection Program forgivable grants, meant to tide over small businesses, has not filtered down to all of them.

The state Legislature reconvened last week to deal primarily with the $862 million in federal funding allocated for Hawaii in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

A lot of whittling needs to happen in the coming days to give the spending plan its proper shape. Initial discussions last week showed how hurriedly the initial blueprint was assembled, with overlaps and redundancy — not to mention a lack of a clear blueprint from the administration for spending all this cash. That needs to be cleared up immediately.

Clouding the discussion is a basic disagreement over how much to allot for future resiliency versus the most immediate and desperate needs of the public.

There clearly needs to be a balance of spending for the short and intermediate terms, and there are some reasonable proposals in the mix. Adding a software system to distribute food aid that bulks up the existing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for the needy would be $1.5 million well spent.

There was good news on the right-sizing of the state’s contact tracing program to deal quickly with the inevitable uptick in COVID-19 infections, with settlement on a contract between the state Department of Health and the University of Hawaii system that would provide the training.

Looking ahead toward the resumption of tourism, it’s still unclear how best to screen incoming passengers and reduce the risk of infections, given recent concerns about testing quality and availability. But contact tracing is every bit as crucial an element, so that represents a welcome step forward.

And yes, policymakers do need to grapple with how the state can reshape its economy for the “new normal” realities. But lawmakers are rightly questioning spending plans, including the need to create new governmental structures to handle post-pandemic economic development. They need more answers to guide their final verdicts.

Meanwhile, there are businesses that are on the brink of failing right now. State Sen. Laura Thielen argued that the state should take a lead from Montana, which is providing $123 million in emergency grants with its CARES funding.

The beneficiaries of all this spending, she said, ought to include “people that can’t go without one paycheck, let alone two months without a paycheck.”

Shoring up the unemployment insurance fund, as Ige wants to do, is only part of the needed government response. So is helping the currently jobless, and their employers, who deserve a swift assist to get back on their feet.

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