Business, community, medical leaders paint grim picture of virus impact

  • Photos by Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald A man runs around Liliʻuokalani Park and Gardens in Hilo on Friday.

Just about every Big Island industry is struggling under the state’s lockdown of nonessential businesses.

Big Island lawmakers met with business and community leaders during a teleconference Friday to discuss the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on various sectors of the island’s economy.

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The conclusion: Things will continue to get worse before they get better.

The three-hour-long conference touched on the current status of COVID-19 testing, health care, the housing market, education, large and small businesses, and other subjects.

While no representative from the Hilo Medical Center spoke on the call, Hawaii Health Systems Corp. CEO Linda Rosen said she is particularly concerned about the supply of personal protective equipment for medical staff.

“We are burning through personal protective equipment rapidly, with nothing to show for it,” Rosen said, urging other health care facilities to adopt telehealth policies in order to conserve equipment.

On the education front, Alapaki Nahale-a, Hawaii Island senior director of community engagement and resources for Kamehameha Schools, said the transition to online courses is more difficult than it might appear, and that students may be better served by parents becoming more closely engaged with their children’s education during the extended spring break.

University of Hawaii at Hilo Chancellor Bonnie Irwin agreed, saying the switch to asynchronous learning programs has been rocky as the university converts all classes to online formats.

Irwin’s current concern is maintaining mental and physical health resources for UH students. As of Friday, there were still 282 students in residence on UH-Hilo’s campus; 13 of them are in self-quarantine, as is Irwin herself.

“We’ve told our students that those of them who can go home, should. But for some of them, this is the safest place they can be right now,” Irwin said.

Meanwhile, the business community’s diagnosis was “horrendous,” said Wendy Laros, executive director of the Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce. In the hotel industry alone, more than 3,500 jobs have been lost, while state Sen. Kai Kahele said statewide unemployment has leapt from 2% to 10%.

Miles Yoshioka, executive officer for the Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce, said a survey of chamber businesses found that about 50% of respondents remain open, and another 30% are open but in a limited capacity.

Other survey questions found that more than 30% of respondents have had to lay off staff, 48% have implemented work-from-home policies, and 67% request a suspension of the General Excise Tax to alleviate the effects of their loss of business.

Ross Birch, Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau director, said only five major hotels remain open on the island, including the Grand Naniloa and the Hilo Hawaiian. But as visitors on the island return home and fewer travelers arrive — only five passengers arrived on the first of six scheduled flights to the island on Friday — some of those hotels will also likely close in the coming weeks.

Despite the obvious impacts to the state’s tourism industry, Birch said the visitors bureau is actively supporting the mandatory 14-day quarantine for all arriving passengers. Bureau representatives are supplying visitors with information about the quarantine and are contacting the hotels where arriving visitors are staying to advise them of their quarantine guests.

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While no immediate solutions were discussed at length, the conference concluded with lawmakers and community leaders compiling a list of county and state resources in order to easily coordinate responses to the evolving crisis.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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