Intentionally or not, Hawaii may have just reached a crossroads in planning for its economic future. Its reliance on its bedrock visitor industry has been shaken to the core by the global coronavirus pandemic, and there may need to be a redeployent of its workforce.
This signal came down on Monday, when Gov. David Ige announced he was delaying for a month the high-stakes plan to start a gradual reboot of the tourism industry, which had been slated to launch Aug. 1.
For the past week, everyone had witnessed an alarming explosion in COVID-19 infections in hot spots such as California, Texas and Arizona, and an acceleration in outbreaks elsewhere around the country.
There were shortages in testing supplies, especially in the hardest-hit areas where there was evidence of wide community spread of the virus.
From the perspective of Hawaii public health experts, there was worry about the spikes in infections locally, as well. This rightly concerns Dr. Sarah Park, state epidemiologist, who told the state Senate COVID-19 committee on Wednesday that the community has lapsed in safe practices.
All of this added uncertainty to Hawaii’s program enabling travelers to waive the 14-day quarantine through pre-travel testing, now delayed until at least Sept. 1. The state still will roll out new forms and protocols on Aug. 1, but the testing-and-waiver had been seen as a key component in “risk mitigation,” allowing for a gradual but significant increase in arrivals.
And when that part got postponed, business owners and employees, especially those most closely allied with the tourism industry, were deeply worried, some with fading prospects for survival.
It now means at least one month more of paying bills just to stay afloat. A number of them will decide they don’t believe business will ramp up to a level that can sustain them. Almost certainly, they will close for good. Some already have.
Advocacy groups such as Chamber of Commerce Hawaii hope there can be some aid for local businesses. Sherry Menor-McNamara, the Chamber’s president and CEO, called on state and county governments to supply “stabilization funds.” Ige should head up a search for local resources that could help them.
The counties and state have received about $1.8 billion in federal CARES Act relief funds. Some revenue streams aided businesses but so far have been focused on maintaining employee payrolls.
Menor-McNamara said the Paycheck Protection Program will end Aug. 8, adding that the more crucial problem is the lack of commercial activity that the tourists provide — and that a cash infusion is needed.
Encouragingly, when the Honolulu City Council’s Economic Assistance and Revitalization Committee met on Wednesday, it discussed ways to provide commercial rent relief, Menor-McNamara said.
And state lawmakers have sequestered federal dollars for businesses to manufacture personal protective equipment (PPE) and for other targeted commercial uses. Some expect Congress to move on additional assistance to the states that could more broadly sustain businesses, but progress there is not guaranteed.
For their part, employees facing job loss should tap into initiatives such as the Chamber’s virtual job fair, “Hawaii Is Hiring” (linked at www.cochawaii.org). Another promising resource: Hawaii’s community college system offers an affordable route to retraining for new careers.
Also essential now are fresh ideas about economic directions for the state, which has a new “navigator” as well as its established business-development department. It’s time to strategize on actions for economic survival, and this would be an opportune time to hear from that corner of Hawaii leadership.