Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

One week changed everything. On March 14, bars, restaurants and public places in Hawaii were largely operating as normal as only a handful of Covid-19 cases had been diagnosed in the Aloha State.

By March 17, responding to the pandemic, updated federal guidelines and stricter policies sweeping the nation, Gov. David Ige requested new restrictions on public activities, including asking visitors to postpone coming to the islands for at least 30 days. As the state's 10th new coronavrius case was announced, public areas were shut down while restaurants, bars and entertainment venues faced tightening restrictions.

By March 21, there were a total of 48 known Covid-19 cases in the state, and Ige stepped to the podium again to announce a new measure: Starting March 26, everyone entering Hawaii, residents and visitors alike, will be subject to a 14-day quarantine. 

Earlier in the week, Ige also asked for a 15-day closure of bars and clubs, theaters, entertainment venues and visitor attractions. Restaurants are being asked to limit service to drive-through and takeout. Groceries, pharmacies and other essential services are to remain open. 

In his Saturday press conference, Ige said the mandatory quarantine order would remain in effect indefinitely.

"This mandate is the first of its kind in the nation," he said. "We want this action to send the message to visitors and residents alike that we appreciate their love for Hawaii, but we are asking them to postpone their visit."

Ige had previously extended a state of emergency throughout Hawaii to run through mid-May and announced new state measures to contain the spread of coronavirus including increasing the number of testing sites.

Violating the quarantine order is a misdemeanor offense with a maximum fine of $5,000 and up to one-year imprisonment. All those entering Hawaii will be ordered to self-quarantine in their homes, hotels or other lodging, and enforcement will be up to the counties, state officials announced. 

On Oahu, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell ordered the closure of indoor city facilities and banned large gatherings on city property, urging private businesses to follow the same precautions.

"It's not business as usual anymore," Caldwell said in his announcement. "Don't come out of your homes if you don't have to."

In the previous few weeks, the Hawaii entertainment and event schedule had already been ripped to shreds for the coming months. Numerous events have been canceled or postponed. The 57th installment of the Merrie Monarch Festival, referred to as the "Super Bowl of Hula" and scheduled for April 12-18 in Hilo on Hawaii Island, was canceled. The 13th Festival of the Pacific Arts and Culture, or Festpac, booked to come to Hawaii for 11 days in June, has been postponed. The annual Travel Weekly Hawaii Leadership Forum, scheduled for April 28 in Waikiki, has been postponed. The Waikiki Spam Jam, slated for April 25, is postponed. The Shinnyo Lantern Floating Hawaii ceremony on May 25, one of the largest events held in Honolulu each year, has been canceled.

Additionally, tours of Kalaupapa National Historical Park have been canceled until April 11 as a public health measure to protect the Kalaupapa Hansen's disease patients. The Maunakea Visitor Information Station on Hawaii Island suspended operations starting March 15. The parking lot will remain open as well as the portable toilets there. The mountain remains open to the public. Maui Arts and Cultural Center postponed all public programming.

Through April 30 many public activities in Honolulu are canceled, including Blaisdell Center concerts, Royal Hawaiian Band performances, Lei Day events, People's Open Markets and more.

In additional measures coming after Ige's announcement, the Honolulu mayor closed all city parks including municipal golf courses and the Honolulu Zoo, and mandated restaurants, bars and clubs on Oahu provide takeout only and offer no public seating through at least April 4. 

Just as the situation on the ground has been changing rapidly, so have the forecasts of the impact on Hawaii's number one industry. Early on, projections were modeled after the experience with the SARS virus, which had a steep decline but rapid recovery. As the pandemic has widened, and the arch of the downturn lengthened, the potential outcomes have worsened. University of Hawaii economists released a report March 10 estimating a 10% decline in tourism spending in 2020, a $1.7 billion hit to the economy.

"While new infections have slowed markedly in China, the spread of the novel coronavirus ... suggests a more prolonged outbreak is in the cards," the report states. "And the longer the virus spreads, the greater the human and economic toll."

The new measures in Hawaii follow the first positive test on March 16 for Covid-19 in Hawaii that was not someone who had recently traveled outside the state: an employee at Oahu's Kualoa Ranch, a tourist attraction with movie sites, boat excursions and other activities.

Jack Richards, president of Pleasant Holidays, said the company entered 2020 with a record number of Hawaii bookings, and while business continued to be ahead of 2019's pace, the rate of cancellations out of the San Francisco Bay Area particularly increased following the shelter-in-place order for six counties.

"It is the strictest [order] in the U.S. so far, similar to Europe. This is resulting in Hawaii cancellations from the SF Bay area, and this will continue for the next few weeks," Richards said in an email. "The SF Bay area is a large origin market for Hawaii, so this will negatively impact the destination, which cannot be quantified at this time. There is no question Hawaii trip cancellations are much higher than normal especially for Hawaii cruises, due to the CDC recommendation travelers should defer cruise ship travel worldwide."

The majority of cancellations were for March and April, Richards said, and while they continue to take new bookings for Hawaii in 2020 and 2021, the volume is less than normal.  

"We do believe Hawaii is perceived to be a safer destination than others since the state is reporting a low number of Covid-19 cases today," he added. "Hawaii airline fares and room rates are near record lows for the year, and this is helping stimulate some travel for those who would not consider Hawaii due to price. Total demand is down due to traveler fear and anxiety that is preventing many from booking Hawaii vacations today."

Tourism accounts for nearly one out of every five jobs in the state and 17% of the economy, and how the industry fares during the pandemic is at the top of mind for state officials. Hawaii Tourism Authority president Chris Tatum addressed the state House Select Committee on Covid-19 at a March 12 hearing.

Tatum, noting the worsening projections, urged lawmakers to consider support such as sick leave for small businesses in the hospitality industry.

"The industry produces $17 billion in revenue, and we know we have a responsibility to support that going forward," Tatum said. "But right now, the focus is making sure we're part of the same team and working on impacting the spread of the virus."

Carl Bonham, executive director of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization, said Hawaii officials need to prepare for the worst.

"The short-term economic effects will overwhelm the state's ability to counteract them," Bonham said, adding he predicts hotel occupancy to drop by 30% to 40%, from an average of 80%. The state could soften the blow with measures like increasing unemployment benefits, he said.

Hawaiian Airlines CEO Peter Ingram told the committee airlines are likely to continue reducing flights as demand continues to soften. A marketing push selling Hawaii as a place that can offer a range of unique experiences for visitors might help mitigate the loss of air travelers, he told the committee.

As conditions in Hawaii have changed rapidly, properties are adapting on every level: guest relations, operations and employee support.

"The health, safety and well-being of our guests and employees are our first priority as we navigate through these unprecedented times," Kisan Jo, president of Prince Resorts Hawaii, said in an email. "Through these difficult times, we are doing everything we can as an employee-first company to support the health and livelihood of our employees to the best of our abilities given the changing landscape of this current situation."

Prince Resorts, whose properties include the Prince Waikiki in addition to the two properties that comprise Mauna Kea Resort on Hawaii Island, has implemented flexible cancellation and rebooking policies for guests, adjusted restaurant operations and cancelled any event bookings over 10 people for 30 days. Employees are receiving complimentary testing, continued medical coverage and additional support through an employee wellness fund to supplement wages, Jo said.

Other hotels and tourism-related businesses are similarly scrambling to figure out how to best support their staff and manage finances during an indeterminate period. 

Following the Ige announcement, Rob Pacheco, president of Hawaii Forest and Trail, and his team decided to shut down all tour operations until after Easter. Pacheco has built the tour company over 27 years, and recently has had to rebound from a major hit to his business from the eruption of Kilauea in 2018. Hawaii Forest and Trail had already taken numerous cancellations due to the cessation of Princess cruise stops in the Islands.

"We've gone through quite a few challenges with the business over the years. ... Just as we're getting back on track and doing well with our feet underneath us, boom, the coronavirus hits," he said. "This is like a slow 9/11, where everything is just gradually grinding to a halt. Who knows how long it will last."  

Pacheco agreed that the time had come for the restrictions on public gatherings, and the hospitality industry, and Hawaii community in general, will have to rally together in the coming weeks and months to support one another.

"Everyone is still a little shell-shocked and figuring out what to do. There still isn't a lot of clear direction from the government on what to expect in terms of assistance with medical coverage, wages, mortgages and debts," he said. "There are a lot of concerns. It's survival mode for lots of folks, for large corporations and small businesses."

For now, Pacheco said he hopes to keep as much of the business in place as possible so they can ramp up quickly when conditions start to normalize.

"I have no doubt the travel industry will rebound, and I think Hawaii will be even more popular after this is over," he said. "People will see that it's a safe destination and want to come here."

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