Approximately 116,000 residents in Hawaii who filed for unemployment insurance benefits are expected to receive a $500 prepaid debit card beginning Friday to spend at local restaurants, bakeries and catering services.
The debit cards are being issued under the Hawaii Restaurant Card Program meant to support both residents and businesses struggling in the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
At a news conference Wednesday at the Highway Inn restaurant in Kakaako, Gov. David Ige said the goal of the program is three-fold: to drive customers to the hard-hit restaurant industry; stimulate economic activity across the entire local food supply chain, including farmers, fishers, ranchers, producers and distributors; and provide direct assistance to unemployed residents who have been impacted by COVID-19.
The program is a $75 million economic relief initiative made possible by the federal CARES Act as private partnership being administered by the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.
“We wanted to create a program that would help as many people as possible,” Ige said. He noted the debit cards will not impact eligibility or status for SNAP food assistance and Medicaid recipients.
Residents eligible to receive the restaurant card include individuals who applied and received unemployment insurance benefits in the month of September. In addition to the 116,000 qualified recipients, Ige said they also plan to mail another 30,000 cards to Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program recipients who received benefits in September.
The program runs through from Friday to 11:59 p.m. Dec. 15. Qualified recipients can use the card at local establishments that accept debit Mastercards to purchase food and nonalcoholic beverages. Ige estimated the program will pump more than $1.2 million into the local economy per day over the 60-day period.
Any unused funds from the restaurant card program will be returned to the state and put toward other CARES Act-eligible programs.
“This card comes at a critical time and it will help save our local businesses,” said Sherry Menor-McNamara, president and chief executive officer of the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii. “It will help save our local jobs and help our economy at a much-needed time.”
Monica Toguchi Ryan, owner of Highway Inn, said the restaurant card initiative “is exactly what our restaurants need right now.”
“The restaurant industry has suffered so much during this pandemic. Restaurants have not received any federal relief since the spring and are struggling to pay their expenses. Some restaurants have closed entirely, unable to pay rent, food supplies and staff wages.”
During the news conference, Toguchi said dollars spent at restaurants also support local farmers and suppliers. “When you make the choice to support local restaurants, you’re also choosing to invest in our communities and our neighborhoods and all the things that truly make Hawaii special.”
Highway Inn made changes to boost consumer confidence at its restaurants in Kakaako and Waipahu that include air-purification technology in its HVAC systems.
Of the new restaurant card program, Roy Yamaguchi, owner of 10 restaurants in Hawaii, said he wished it had started earlier. “But of course better late than never.”
“I’m glad the state is doing this,” he added.
Yamaguchi temporarily closed five restaurants that are located primarily in hotel and resort areas because of the lack of tourists.
He said he spent thousands of dollars on additional sanitizing and disinfectant products that include ultraviolet sanitizing wands and electrostatic sprayers.
“All the restaurants and retailers, these establishments are doing their best that they can possibly do. At the end of the day, they don’t want to catch COVID-19 themselves, let alone their staff get it,” Yamaguchi said. “They’re doing their best with whatever they can to protect the people that work there and, in turn, that helps the guests from being in contact with any kind of virus.
“At the end of the day, we’re all in this together. All of us need something to smile about and look forward to.”
For more information on the Hawaii Restaurant Card Program, visit hawaiirestaurantcard.com/faq.