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Editorial: Restaurant cards a welcome benefit

To naysayers who want perfect: We can’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. And certainly not during this coronavirus pandemic, when on one hand, there are people living on the edge who need food, and on the other, restaurants struggling to survive that need customers.

So on balance, a new state program that will invest $75 million in a restaurant-card system, allowing Hawaii residents unemployed since March to eat free, is worthwhile. The Restaurant Card Program, set to launch in mid-October, will mail $500 dining debit cards to those who have been receiving unemployment insurance since March 25. The pre-loaded, non-transferable cards can be used at Hawaii restaurants statewide, from Oct. 20 to Dec. 15. The state Labor Department will identify card recipients from its rolls, so there’s no need to apply; an estimated 100,000 people will be in the first pool helped.

This initiative — funded from a pool of federal CARES Act money that the state must use by year’s end — aims to meet the dual goals of feeding those hardest hit by the pandemic’s economic fallout, and supporting local eateries that have been forced into take-out mode for months. It’s also important to note that behind each restaurant is its own business food chain of distributors and suppliers, such as farmers, ranchers and fishers.

More program details are pending. But in a Wednesday news conference with the governor, Sherry Menor-McNamara, CEO of the Chamber of Commerce in Hawaii, was right in calling this “a win-win because it provides people who’ve qualified a little extra cash and also helps local small businesses that are struggling.”

The ongoing pandemic has caused widespread business lockdowns and severely limited restaurant in-dining service, and the National Restaurant Association estimates that 60% of restaurants cannot continue to operate without additional support.

Further justification for the Restaurant Card Program comes from a University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization (UHERO) study, which says that every dollar spent in a local restaurant contributes $1.82 into Hawaii’s economy. It also estimated some 1,000 restaurant-related jobs would be saved by such a program.

And then there are the intangibles: For someone slogging through a half-year of joblessness, being supported with $500 of meals through mid-December could be a needed boost, food- and morale-wise. A few dine-in treats or elevated take-out meals during difficult times can be the uplifting difference between hope and despair.

A few cautions to note, though:

>> To the extent possible, the Restaurant Card Program should benefit those who are truly in need — that is, struggling to make ends meet due to poverty or low-income level. There are many people drawing unemployment, for instance, who are part of a financially sound household; ideally, the cards should be going to those living closer to the edge.

>> The focus of this program should be food and nutrition, so alcohol should be disallowed. Asked Wednesday about liquor eligibility, Menor-McNamara said that while the card could not be used for a store purchase of alcohol, it would be applied toward “the total bill” in a restaurant. Government-subsidized SNAP benefits (aka “food stamps”) do not allow liquor buys; this restaurant card should follow suit.

No one expects the Restaurant Card Program to be the sole solution to Hawaii’s massive, complex economic woes; nothing is. And no doubt that substantial, targeted help on bigger expenses such as rent relief or subsidies must continue. But support comes in many ways, big and small. This restaurant card program can take a bite out of gloom for the neediest among us, while helping to sustain our kamaaina restaurants.

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