Kauai business owners wonder how they'll survive latest island shutdown

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After a 20-month closure due to devastating floods and then a fire, Hanalei Colony Resort reopened in December 2019 -- only to shut down again in March because of the pandemic.
After a 20-month closure due to devastating floods and then a fire, Hanalei Colony Resort reopened in December 2019 -- only to shut down again in March because of the pandemic.
Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

The residents of Kauai pride themselves on their resilience, but after a year unlike any other and a recent blow to the Garden Isle's rebooting tourism industry, many hotel managers and tour providers are openly questioning how they will make it through the next round of hits to their business.

Six weeks into the coronavirus pretravel testing program that allows travelers who test negative within 72 hours of departure to forgo a 14-day quarantine, Kauai has indefinitely opted out. Now, while every other island in the Aloha State is still offering a way out of quarantine, everybody who arrives on Kauai is subject to the mandatory quarantine.

Chino Godinez and his brother Micco have run Kayak Kauai since 1984 and have weathered major disasters like 1992's Hurricane Iniki, and minor ones like seasonal flooding. He said business was going "gang-busters" for the month of November and they were hopeful for a strong December but as soon as Kauai announced it was no longer participating in pre-travel testing, bookings cratered.

"Kauai has always been a little bit separate from the rest of the islands, and there's a pride in that," Godinez said. "We always roll with the punches, and there is a strong sense of community. That's what attracts a lot of people to Kauai. We definitely want to protect the citizenry; I'm all for that. But we had the program in place, and I'm not sure how shutting things down going into the Christmas holidays is best for the island. As a businessman, I don't think they are taking some things into consideration. It's almost draconian in my opinion and could end up destroying a lot of our mom-and-pop operations. I think if the politicians had to forgo their income all this time, they might see things differently."

Kauai, led by mayor Derek Kawakami, has kept its coronavirus numbers relatively low, with under 1% of the state's total cases. But the island's total case count has doubled since the launch of the pretravel testing program on Oct. 15, and there is concern that Kauai's medical facilities could quickly become overrun if there was a significant outbreak (there are only nine intensive-care unit beds on the island of 72,000 residents).

Kawakami initially sought approval to mandate a second coronavirus test after arrival in order for travelers to skip quarantine, but that plan was shot down by Gov. David Ige. As a result, Kawakami then asked the governor to permit the island to withdraw entirely from the program.

"While the economic impact of the quarantine is severe, the economic impact of sickness and a subsequent shutdown would be much worse," Kawakami said in a Nov. 30 coronavirus update streamed live. "At any point we can either offer stronger assurances with the Safe Travels program, or should the national outlook improve, we will gladly revoke this moratorium."

Godinez said he supported the idea of a post-arrival test and felt that would close some of the gaps in the existing program where some people who tested prior to departure landed on the island without their test results only to find out after arrival that they were positive for coronavirus.

"We're a small island, and we need to protect the community, for sure," Godinez said. "But I thought the post-arrival test was a good move, and this idea that there isn't funding for it is kind of ridiculous to me. Tourism will fund it. If there is no tourism, then there is no money coming in."

Perhaps no one on the island has been ducking and dodging blows to their business over the previous two years quite like Laura Richards, general manager of the Hanalei Colony Resort on Kauai's north shore. In April 2018, historic rainfall led to calamitous floods that ripped through the property and closed it down. Later that summer, a fire did even more damage. Finally, in December 2019 the resort was able to partially reopen, only to close again at the end of March due to the pandemic.

When they reopened on Oct. 15, coinciding with the launch of the pretravel testing program, business looked promising.

"We were looking at 50% occupancy for December, which is obviously a big step up from nothing," Richards said. "But since the announcement of Kauai pulling out of the program, we've lost at least 65% of those bookings. We're pretty devastated."

Richards had brought staff back on and was ramping up operations for what she hoped would be at a minimum a break-even holiday season. Now, she is shifting course again and brainstorming new ways to find guests.

"We are working on attracting people who would like to come over for two to three months at a time," Richards said. "We have 13 oceanfront and premium oceanfront accommodations, and they could be great for people who want to come and stay for a few months and work from here."

Richards is also considering applying to be part of Kauai's enhanced-movement quarantine or "resort bubble" program, in which quarantining individuals are allowed to leave their rooms but must stay on the hotel grounds and are tracked with a GPS device. A handful of properties have already been approved for the resort bubble and will be falling back on that option now that all arrivals are subject to quarantine, including the Cliffs at Princeville, Hilton Garden Inn Kauai Wailua Bay, Koa Kea Hotel, Kukuiula and Timbers Kauai.

While Richards is worried about the resort, which has been open for roughly five months out of the last two-and-a-half years, and its employees, she also is sensitive to limiting the spread of coronavirus and said she generally approves of the job Kawakami has done during the pandemic.

"I lost my husband to Covid earlier this year. So, I'm very supportive of the efforts to keep people safe, and this has been emotionally difficult for me," she said. "Kauai only has nine ICU beds, and the island has limited resources. I understand the mayor's decision, but the timing is hard for all of us. The worst part is that it might have been better for us had we not reopened in October only to shut down again in December. It's super-difficult, and there's a lot of money involved in reopening."

After several false starts and seven months of waiting for Hawaii to reopen to tourists, the Island Activity Group, a Kauai company that offers whale-watching, snorkeling, scuba diving, surfing and other tours, was excited to welcome back guests in October, said Kevin Abernathy, director for sales and marketing. The company reconfigured operations to meet new health and safety requirements, including replacing pen-and-paper forms with an all-digital process. Bookings were 50% to 60% of typical times in November, and because the tours were now conducted in smaller groups to meet social distancing guidelines, they were able to bring back all of the former staff, even with reduced total numbers.

"Since Kauai opted out of the testing program 90% of our calls have been cancellations," said Abernathy, who added that he generally supports the mayor's effort to minimize the spread of coronavirus on the island.

"I am concerned that this latest closure singles out Kauai and is very hard on the local economy and businesses just as they were beginning to rebound a bit," he said. "It would be nice to see a statewide policy. Now, people can go to Maui but not Kauai, and I'm worried about the impact on our tourism economy."

In announcing the withdrawal from the program, Kawakami said Kauai would only rejoin when the island has the "virus under control again," meaning more uncertainty for businesses.

"It's frustrating, because it makes it so hard to plan for what the business needs," said Abernathy. "If we had known in March that we'd be closed through October, we would have had much better planning and strategy. It's the same thing now. If you tell us we're not going to reopen until March, great, I can plan around that. The unknown doesn't do us, tourism, or our guests any good."

Godinez, 70, who also saw reservations for a vacation rental he operates dry up after the announcement, says he is more concerned about Kauai's younger workforce than someone nearing retirement like himself, but he also has faith that Kauai will push forward through adversity.

"Business here has always been that way; coronavirus just accentuates it," he said. "We'll keep rolling with the punches, just like we do through the flood warnings and hurricanes. We're a resilient group. We will rise again."

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