Ever since Gov. David Ige unveiled the state’s color-coded timeline for economic recovery last month, Hawaii has been situated in its yellow zone — a midway point between major disruption caused by sweeping shutdowns and a minimally disruptive future of living with the coronavirus.
If the state’s low COVID-19 infection rate holds, by the end of this month all businesses and operations with the exceptions of large venues, bars and clubs will be open — with social distancing and mask-wearing practices in place, and gatherings limited to 10 people.
It’s encouraging that the reopening of restaurants for in-house dining starts today. Still, for many proprietors, keeping their doors open will be a financial struggle, especially for those dependent on tourist foot traffic, as social distancing means many places will reduce seating capacity by 50% or more.
Further, many restaurants will be contending with rent and utility bills along with new expenses for PPE (personal protective equipment) such as masks and gloves along with installation of other protective barriers.
They will need more help.
Some positive encouragement came from legislation passed by the U.S. Senate on Wednesday — the bipartisan Paycheck Protection Program Flexibility Act (PPPFA) — that will provide small businesses and nonprofits with additional time to use their PPP loans, and more flexibility to use their loans to cover non-payroll costs like rent and utilities.
Since March, Congress has provided $660 billion for PPP. Hawaii’s $2.4 billion slice has resulted in upwards of 23,400 loans that convert into federal grants if recipients meet certain conditions. With small businesses — 500 or fewer employees — representing 99% of the state’s private-sector employers, the relief is critical for economic recovery.
Also contributing to recovery in this sector is a $25 million grant program initiated by Honolulu Hale. Funded by the city’s share of federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) money, it offers grants of up to $10,000 to businesses with no more than 30 employees or $1 million in annual revenue.
Helping mom-and-pop shops survive COVID-19’s economic fallout must continue to rate as a priority in the islands, as the largest portion of the small-business sector is made up of operations with fewer than 100 employees.
The yellow zone allows for reopening of some indoor gathering places, ranging from exercise facilities to restaurants for dining in. The timeline places all bars in the next phase, the green zone, in which gatherings of up to 50 people will be allowed. During a recent meeting of the Hawaii Senate committee on COVID-19, a state official said the bar designation was based, in part, on the assumption that when consuming alcohol, people would “tend to not comport with social distancing.”
However, Ige signed an order Thursday allowing bars, gyms and movie theaters to reopen on Oahu, “provided that reconsideration be given to limiting gatherings to 100 individuals outdoors … and 50 individuals indoors.”
That’s welcome news for those businesses. But safety remains a serious concern, especially in social gathering places like bars, which must be more vigilant than usual.
The yellow zone’s focus on reopening indoor gathering sites should be based primarily on the ability to comply with set neutral metrics for social distancing and other safe practices, such as reduced seating. As more establishments reopen, they will take on more of the burden of managing their own spaces responsibly.
The state’s reopening strategy correctly aims to forge a “responsible, measured path forward in a dynamic situation.” Sooner or later, that path will open up every segment of our economy, including those that pose greater risk for virus spread. As our economy slowly reopens, small businesses will face new, perhaps unpredictable challenges. State and county efforts should continue to give them the support they need.