The city’s Dine in Chinatown event got off to a slow start Saturday night, but hundreds of people still braved the coronavirus pandemic in support of customer-starved restaurants and merchants.
“I usually avoid the area because of the homeless,” said Kim Nishimura, who was toting a takeout dinner from a Hotel Street restaurant. “They should do this more often.”
Hotel Street from River Street to Richards Street was closed off to vehicular traffic and opened to bicyclists and pedestrians from 4 to 9 p.m. in an event described as a pilot program similar to the Open Streets event on Kalakaua Avenue that was launched in mid-June and extended through July, with the busy Waikiki thoroughfare closed to traffic from 6 a.m. to noon.
The Chinatown event came on the same day that health officials announced 42 new confirmed COVID-19 cases, a record for a single day in Hawaii and capping off a week in which the state averaged nearly 30 cases per day.
Earlier in the week Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said he might suspend Dine in Chinatown due to the recent spike in new coronavirus cases.
But the mayor forged ahead, saying that allowing people to be outside in the open air is safer than being in an enclosed environment. And closing Hotel Street to allow restaurants to spill out onto the sidewalk out front, he said, would provide a much-needed economic boost to the area.
However, the event came under fire Saturday from Lt. Gov. Josh Green, who called it “very worrisome.”
“Encouraging large crowds to gather in the same place all at once is the exact opposite advice we should be giving people. Whoever decided to go forward with this event when COVID is peaking should be fired. Common sense says it should be rescheduled for when things are safe,” said Green, a physician.
Agreeing was Dr. Scott Miscovich, who is a leader in testing efforts in the islands.
“We should be considering closing restaurants and opening them for takeout only,” he said, making note of the recent surge in COVID-19 cases. “Encouraging the use of indoor restaurants is very concerning.”
More than a dozen restaurants along or near Hotel Street were open, some with sidewalk dining, others offering indoors only and still others with both indoor and outdoor seating. Some art galleries and shops were also open.
Restaurants were required to have tables spaced 6 feet apart, with serving staff wearing face coverings at all times. Guests had to wear face coverings until seated, as required by the latest coronavirus directive from the city.
Saranya Hoopai, owner of Charm3, a Thai and Vietnamese restaurant at Hotel and Smith streets, stood in her empty restaurant at the 5 o’clock hour. Outside, few people were strolling on the street.
“I think people are still scared of the virus. I’m not sure they’re going to come out tonight,” she said. “But hopefully.”
On the other side of the street, Chu Lan Shubert-Kwock, president of the Chinatown Business & Community Association, called Dine in Chinatown a good idea but added that it’s going to take time to build.
She said for now people are nervous about the double-digit coronavirus counts and leery about crime linked to the sizable homeless population in Chinatown. There wasn’t a lot of publicity either, she said.
“It can grow if there is better organizing and maybe seed money from the city,” Shubert-Kwock said.
Saturday’s record coronavirus case count brought the statewide total number of infections since the start of the outbreak to 1,200. The previous record for one day was 41 cases, which occurred Tuesday. Of the 42 cases on Saturday, 38 were on Oahu, with two each on Hawaii island and in Maui County.
Among the recent cases is an employee at the Cheesecake Factory in Waikiki. The company confirmed the case with a statement Friday:
“Today, upon learning that an individual who tested positive for COVID-19 had been in the restaurant, we immediately notified anyone who had been in close contact with that person to self-quarantine. We also notified our other staff members that someone had tested positive. We have reached out to the local health department for additional guidance. The restaurant is cleaned nightly by an outside company and we are conducting an additional deep cleaning of the restaurant.”
Elsewhere, KITV reported that an employee at the Safeway in Hawaii Kai tested positive for COVID-19.
The supermarket told the station the employee last worked two weeks ago and that it was notifying anyone who may have had close contact with the worker. The store was also getting multiple deep cleanings.
Rising cases here and on the mainland didn’t stop hundreds of visitors from flying to the islands Friday.
Of the 2,268 passengers who arrived on 27 flights, 611 were visitors, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority. The total included 626 returning residents and 110 people who indicated they planned to relocate to Hawaii. The majority of the visitors, 489, landed on Oahu, while 59 went to Maui and 63 to Kona.
At this time last year, about 35,000 passengers were arriving in Hawaii daily, HTA said.