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Editorial: Help restaurants stay in business

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As Honolulu tries for a second time to recover from COVID-19’s crushing impact on the kamaaina economy, restaurants are now reopening — as they did the first time — with tables set at least 6 feet apart and protective partitions in place for dining at 50% capacity.

However, under the city’s new four-tier recovery plan, there are more layers of pandemic-related rules. Tables will be limited to parties of five in which all must be from the same household; and diners must provide information that could be used for contact- tracing. Also, everyone must mask up, except when eating or drinking. No mask-free chitchat.

For the foreseeable future, such directives will change the dining-out vibe — and alter all businesses that have banked on a steady presence of on-site social gathering. Change in long-established commerce and activities can be hard to accept, but it is our sole path to simultaneously rebuilding Hawaii’s economy while fending off COVID-19 community spread.

It’s encouraging that the Hawaii Restaurant Association has expressed confidence that through stepped-up directives in the reopening plan, which took effect Thursday, restaurants will serve up “stronger evidence” that dining out can be a “relatively safe activity.”

But sadly, due to months of COVID-19 restrictions, according to one recent statewide count, nearly 50 restaurants have permanently closed. The association describes many of the remaining restaurants as in survival mode, bringing in only 50% to 65% of the sales they made prior to the pandemic; and without federal and state assistance they, too would be closed now.

Especially hard-hit are bars and nightclubs. Under the city’s tiered strategy, in which reopening gains depend on the number of daily virus cases reported and test positivity rate, the soonest these two high-risk business types could open is mid-December. Some may try to secure restaurant status by serving more food, but such a pivot can be difficult for an already cash-strapped operation.

In response to small business struggles, Honolulu Hale is rightly pouring a large portion of its federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act allocation into the city’s Small Business Relief and Recovery Fund (SBRRF). So far, some $60 million in aid has been distributed to more than 6,500 recipients on Oahu.

Currently, the fund is providing reimbursement grants of up to $10,000 to small businesses with commercial storefronts — those with 50 or fewer employees and less than $2 million in gross annual income. The money can be used to cover fixed costs like rent and utilities as well as other costs of operation and interruption, including COVID-19 signage, personal protective equipment and automation.

Starting Oct. 1, businesses and nonprofits with $2 million to $5 million in annual revenue may apply for reimbursement grants of up to $50,000.

The clamor for relief in our diverse business communities is sure to continue until the state’s tourism industry marks a significant upswing. So, city officials must continue to work in tandem with chambers of commerce and other groups to break down any language barriers impeding the SBRRF application process.

In addition, the city must continue to assist small-scale commercial fishing and farming operations through grants and programs such as Farm to Car and Boat to Car, which are connecting homegrown agriculture and aquaculture with local consumers; and in the case of Fish to Dish, connecting key elements of the local fishing industry with food-insecure households, through the Hawaii Foodbank.

As city government takes steps along the rough road to economic recovery, residents with disposable income must also do their part by dining out or ordering takeout at favorite restaurants and, of course, shopping at our local businesses.

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