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Struggling Hawaii business owners seek clear path forward from state leaders

  • CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Christina Callahan, left, and Julie Augafa, held signs at a Chamber of Commerce Hawaii rally at the state Capitol on Saturday. Both worked at the Honolulu Club’s Food & Beverage department and were let go in March.

    CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Christina Callahan, left, and Julie Augafa, held signs at a Chamber of Commerce Hawaii rally at the state Capitol on Saturday. Both worked at the Honolulu Club’s Food & Beverage department and were let go in March.

On the day Hawaii was originally set to start a pretravel testing program to allow tourists to bypass the state’s 14-day self-quarantine, dozens of business owners held a virtual rally Saturday to plead for better government leadership as fears of a worsening economy grow.

Sherry Menor-McNamara, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii, hosted the rally via Zoom with over 100 participants, more than a dozen of whom recounted the toll the new coronavirus pandemic has taken on their businesses and communities.

Their hopes for tourism to resume on a meaningful scale will have to wait until at least Sept. 1, the new start date of the testing program set by Gov. David Ige after COVID-19 surges on the mainland and in Hawaii.

One of the leading talking points of the rally was the lack of a government plan for when commerce can restart in full.

“I call on our governor and the others in the state leadership to put together a plan, a clear plan with benchmarks and transparent datasets, so that businesses can know that we are progressing toward a date when we might reopen,” said Mark Perriello, president and CEO of the Kauai Chamber of Commerce. “Simply saying Sept. 1 or Oct. 1 with no plan in place is not the way to go.”

Several rally participants said benchmarks or “trigger points” for reopening would enable business owners to plan ahead. For example, a set number of COVID-19 cases could prompt certain closures, or a set number of days without new cases could trigger some kind of reopening.

“There should be clear metrics based on numbers of infections, hospital room availability, ventilators. … There’s an entire matrix that we can come up with to say, ‘Based on these benchmarks, this is what’s going to happen,” said state Sen. Glenn Wakai (D, Kalihi-Salt Lake-Pearl Harbor).

Debbie Ching Maiava, owner of Ken’s House of Pancakes and Ponds restaurant in Hilo, described the difficulty of dealing with the uncertainty of government actions in response to the pandemic.

“I don’t have any ideas about how we will hang on because I don’t know how long we have to hang on,” she said. “This time is frighteningly fluid and just not being able to know how to prepare for what is the biggest challenge for me day-to-day.”

Cindy McMillan, Ige’s director of communications, said Saturday that state Department of Health Director Bruce Anderson is working with a team on establishing such trigger points.

Mike Rompel, franchise owner of the Domino’s pizza chain in Hawaii, described the state’s attempts to control COVID-19 as “chasing symptoms.”

“Ninety-nine percent of the people that contract the virus, they’re going to get healthy again. … Instead of the community leaders trying to chase down which bar had a case and which ‘this’ had a case and which ‘that’ had a case, they need to focus on protecting the 1% that’s super vulnerable,” he said.

Thomas Ray, bar manager for Square Barrels in downtown Honolulu, said bars and restaurants are being wrongly targeted as COVID-19 hotspots. Mayor Kirk Caldwell last week announced the closure of bars for three weeks after reports of emergency rule violations and case clusters at several establishments.

“Bars are the flavor of the week this week and we’ll find a new scapegoat next week,” Ray said.

Most business owners advocated for strategically allowing tourists to come to Hawaii, and the pretravel testing program was supposed to be the first major step in doing that. Hawaii is also being considered as a part of a travel “bubble” with Japan, although there isn’t a clear timeline for that either.

Visitors spent $17.6 billion in Hawaii in 2019, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority. At this time last year, some 35,000 people were arriving daily, but that number has been hovering between 2,000 and 3,000.

HTA reported Saturday that 2,711 people flew to Hawaii on 29 flights Friday, including 684 visitors. The bulk of the visitors, 597 people, arrived on Oahu, while Maui received 51 and 36 disembarked on Hawaii island.

The arrivals included 854 returning residents and 273 passengers who said they were relocating to Hawaii.

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