A new program will soon launch to provide struggling Hawaii residents with $500 prepaid debit cards to use at local eateries and restaurants across the state.
Beginning Friday, thousands of qualified recipients are expected to automatically receive the cards in the mail as part of the state’s new Hawaii Restaurant Card Program to help residents affected by the pandemic-related economic downturn, as well as to sustain restaurants that have suffered from the lockdown on activities.
The Mastercard debit card can be used at restaurants, including fast food eateries, to purchase food and nonalcoholic beverages for takeout or dine-in. The card also may be used to leave tips when making purchases with the card.
State officials could not be reached Tuesday to further elaborate; a news conference is scheduled for today at the Highway Inn restaurant in Kakaako, where Gov. David Ige and business and restaurant industry representatives are expected to discuss details of the program.
Lauren Zirbel, executive director of the Hawaii Food Industry Association, said, “We’re happy to see any program that supports the struggling food industry companies and helps to drive some traffic to our struggling small businesses and restaurants.”
The food industry association comprises some 200 members that include food suppliers and distributors, grocery stores, restaurants and convenience stores. Zirbel said the loss of tourism has greatly affected members of the organization.
“It accounted for about 30% of food sales. Without tourists here, everyone has seen a decrease in sales. As a result of that, there have been layoffs across the industry, especially in the supplier community and the restaurant community,” she said.
“Hopefully, things get better. It’s been a rough year for everyone.”
As of September more than 50 restaurants across the state have permanently shut down because of the economic slump brought on by the coronavirus outbreak. There are currently 2,639 eateries and restaurants in Hawaii.
Zirbel is hopeful the pre-arrival testing program for travelers arriving from out of state that kicks off Thursday will help generate revenue at restaurants and boost jobs.
The new restaurant card initiative is being funded with $75 million from the federal CARES Act as part of the state’s economic relief program to assist residents who have been receiving unemployment insurance benefits since March.
State officials originally announced that the program will help those who filed an initial claim for unemployment insurance benefits on or after March 25, but the date has since been changed to on or after March 1 to expand eligibility to more individuals, according to the Hawaii Restaurant Card website.
The cards are slated to be sent to residents who opened an initial unemployment insurance claim with the state on or after March 1, certified their job loss is due to the coronavirus pandemic and received unemployment insurance benefits during September.
The state is exploring options to expand the program to include residents who qualify for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program.
Russell Ryan, chief financial officer of Highway Inn, a popular establishment that serves Hawaiian food at two restaurants in Waipahu and Kakaako and a cafe at the Bishop Museum, said revenue has dropped 50% to 60% since the start of the pandemic.
The restaurant recently began offering packaged food items such as beef stew, laulau, pulehu ribs, chicken and other dishes to increase income, but, like many other establishments in the state, it has continued to struggle. Ryan said residents can use the restaurant debit card to purchase packaged food items at Highway Inn as well as for dine-in and takeout orders.
The October-November period, he added, is typically sluggish for restaurants because individuals tend to spend money on gifts for the holiday season. “I feel really optimistic that (the restaurant card program) will help restaurants through the traditionally low winter period.”
Brian Miyamoto, executive director of the Hawaii Farm Bureau, said the new program will help local farmers “to continue to stay in business and continue to produce food while supporting so many families and communities in need.”
He said many farms and ranches experienced a 40% to 50% loss in sales with the shutdown of flights, cruise ships, hotels and schools at the beginning of the outbreak. The new restaurant card program will enable restaurants to start purchasing more local produce because they will see an increase in customers, Miyamoto added.
Hawaii Restaurant Card Program
>> What: A $500 prepaid restaurant debit card for qualified recipients under a new initiative of $75 million in federal CARES Act funds as part of the state’s economic relief program. The card can be used to purchase food and nonalcoholic beverages at eateries including fast-food restaurants in Hawaii. The card can be used at establishments that accept debit Mastercards.
>> When: Qualified recipients are expected to receive the debit card in the mail beginning Friday. The card can be used until the balance reaches zero or by Dec. 15. To check eligibility, visit myrestaurantcard.hawaii.gov/login and provide your Social Security number and phone number.
>> Who: Hawaii residents who opened an initial unemployment insurance claim with the state on or after March 1, certified their job loss is due to the coronavirus pandemic and received unemployment insurance benefits during September are eligible for the program. There is no need to apply.
>> Why: To support struggling residents, boost revenue at restaurants and benefit the state’s local food supply chain, including farmers, fishers, ranchers and distributors.
For more information, visit hawaiirestaurantcard.com/faq.
Source: Hawaii Restaurant Card website