Since January, new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have continued their downward trend and discussions of reopening our economy have begun in earnest. The Hawaii Tourism & Business Coalition (HTBC) — representing tourism stakeholders and businesses of all sizes, including restaurants, attractions and retail — supports the bold and creative proposal by Lt. Gov. Josh Green to set “triggers” to relax COVID-19 mandates related to travel and gatherings as specific phases of the state’s vaccination schedule are completed.
We call upon Gov. David Ige and his administration to implement the proposal, which represents the best path forward for our community and the local economy. Moreover, it strikes a delicate balance between maintaining the health and safety of Hawaii residents while also reestablishing travel and beginning the arduous process of restoring our economy. Additionally, with trepidation regarding the vaccine at an all-time high, we feel that this would motivate both local, interisland travelers and mainland U.S.-based visitors to get vaccinated sooner rather than later to enable more safe travel to occur.
Since the Safe Travels program’s inception, it has become increasingly apparent that we can safely and responsibly welcome travelers, and that our economic recovery cannot truly begin until travelers return with more frequency. The Chamber of Commerce Hawaii (COCH) and University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization (UHERO) survey highlighted this fact when it recently reported that 40% of local businesses stated they will not be able to reopen until tourism is restored in a meaningful way.
COCH also found in a survey of its members that 44% of respondents indicated that the drop in visitor arrivals was the single largest contributing factor to employee layoffs with just 12% of these respondents coming from the tourism sector. Additionally, the UH Public Policy Center issued a report finding that more than half of local restaurants will be forced to close permanently by April without visitors returning to the state in meaningful numbers. Eighty-seven percent of these restaurants indicated that they would not be able to secure the financing needed to start a new business. These findings considered, it is clear that our economy is very much reliant upon tourism, and we must bring people back to our state to breathe life into local businesses.
We must also consider the thousands of men and women who comprise the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Traveler Accommodation” designation, which includes not only traditional hospitality employees, but also those who work in restaurants and retail outlets. The state should look to vaccinate these workers and consider categorizing them in the 1B phase of the state’s vaccination schedule as Lt. Gov. Green recommended. Doing so would not only add an extra layer of protection for these workers and our community, but would also assist the state in vaccinating countless residents in a timely and efficient manner. Several local resorts and other tourism industry partners have already indicated their willingness to host vaccination pods for these workers should the plan be pursued.
In closing, the HTBC would like to reiterate that, although we would like to see this proposal enacted quickly, we recognize that it will require further, detailed discussion with the Department of Health to bring it to fruition in a manner that maintains the balance between economic health and the well-being of our local populace. As such, we look forward to Gov. Ige convening all the major players who stand to be affected by this proposal including each of the county mayors whose input will play an outsize role in the success of this plan.
Until these discussions are had, and a path forward decided upon, our economy and, by extension, its people, will continue to undergo hardships and difficulties.
Mufi Hannemann is CEO of the Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association; Denise Yamaguchi is executive director of the Hawaii Agricultural Foundation; Donn Takaki is chairman of Chamber of Commerce Hawaii. The three organizations are founders of the Hawaii Tourism and Business Coalition.