Still struggling to recover from 2018 eruption, Pahoa takes another hit from pandemic

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald Mark Wynn sits on his truck Tuesday outside the Bank of Hawaii in Pahoa. Wynn was listening to music and trying to enjoy the outdoors to brighten spirits of anyone passing by.

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald Patrons maintain distance while waiting for the ATM outside Bank of Hawaii on Tuesday in Pahoa. The bank is closed, but the community can continue to access the ATM.

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald Glenn Kokuban, superintendent at the Pahoa Community Center, talks Tuesday behind the fence at the center about the difference between the effects of the COVID-19 crisis and the lower Puna eruption in 2018 to the Pahoa community.

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald Alika Nihipali paints decorations Tuesay at Kaleo’s Bar & Grill in Pahoa. Nihipali is helping with projects around the restaurant while it remains closed through the COVID-19 outbreak.

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald Tin Can Bakery owner Matt Purvis talks Tuesday about the changes to his business in Pahoa. Purvis said the bakery has had decent traffic from locals, but is hoping the stimulus package for the federal government helps them continue to stay open and keep employees paid.

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald Byron Leger and Shannon Garity eat on their truck outside Tin Can Bakery on Tuesday in Pahoa. The bakery is making to-go meals and implementing curbside pick up and delivery to continue operating through the COVID-19 outbreak.

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald A biker rides past Sovereign Tea & Books on Tuesday in Pahoa. A closing sale sign is posted on the front of the store. Owner Carmen Ka‘ana‘ana officially decided to close the shop when the COVID-19 outbreak hit the U.S. and tourists were no longer welcome in Hawaii.

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald Marie Delacrois looks over to another Sirius Coffee patron while sitting outside the cafe Tuesday in Pahoa. Delacrois has continued to come the coffeehouse since it is the only place she is able to sit outside and visit with passersby.

With businesses still fighting to recover after the 2018 Kilauea eruption, Pahoa is once again facing an economic catastrophe as the coronavirus lockdown continues.

“This place couldn’t be more of a ghost town,” said construction worker Mark Wynn on Tuesday.

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A walk through downtown Pahoa is strikingly reminiscent to 2018, when businesses struggled to stay open as many Puna residents lost their homes and visitors stayed away from the area. While most restaurants remain open for takeout service during reduced hours, many wonder how much longer they can continue.

“My lease runs out on (March 31),” said Carmen Ka‘ana‘ana, owner of bookstore Sovereign Tea and Books, which was concluding a closeout sale Tuesday. “I’ve been waiting to see if it was worth it to try to renew it, but (the coronavirus) sealed the deal for me.”

One coffee shop owner, who requested to remain anonymous, said his business has served dramatically fewer patrons in the past several weeks.

“We’re barely surviving as it is,” the owner said. “But we’re going to stay open regardless because of the positive energy.”

Matt Purvis, owner of the Tin Shack Bakery, estimated that business has decreased by 60% to 70%, and has had to lay off two employees.

“We’re fortunate that we have a lot of local clients who keep coming back,” Purvis said. “But we’re definitely looking forward to that stimulus package.”

Amedeo Markoff, acting president of the Mainstreet Pahoa Association, said the pandemic struck just as the community was starting to recover from the effects of the 2018 eruption, which cut off roads in the area and destroyed more than 700 homes and structures.

“In some ways, I think Pahoa might be the most prepared for a catastrophe like this,” Markoff said. “We’re the most used to catastrophes and crises. But it is getting a bit redundant.”

Markoff said he closed one business, the Puna Gallery and Gift Emporium, in January when he heard about the spreading coronavirus. Since then, he said, most businesses have had to make layoffs, scale back their hours and find some way to appeal to customers without breaking social distancing guidelines. As one example, Purvis said Tuesday was the first day of the Tin Shack Bakery’s new delivery service, which he hopes will attract more business from customers staying at home.

Workers and residents also are trying to find ways to support businesses and each other.

Resident Marie Delacroix said she visited Sirius Coffee in town specifically because chairs on the restaurant’s patio — situated about 6 feet apart — allow for some degree of safe socializing.

Wynn, meanwhile, played music from his truck in a bank parking lot as people queued to use the ATM.

“Everyone’s cooped up all the time,” Wynn said. “I’m trying to keep up some sort of sanity here.”

Markoff spent much of Tuesday helping a friend clean and renovate his restaurant just to keep busy, he said.

While the pandemic’s impacts on the town are stark, Markoff said he is “cautiously optimistic,” but particularly worried that it might delay eruption recovery efforts that already have been protracted.

“When we get through this, if we’re still in the same place we were before, then what are we doing?” Markoff asked. “We’ve always said the road to our recovery begins with our roads, so I hope we can still get those built during all of this.”

But even if the roads are built tomorrow, Markoff warned potential visitors to not use them.

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“Now is not the time for tourism,” Markoff said. “We need to have fewer visitors right now. Once this is over, Hawaii is still going to be the most beautiful place in the world, and people will come back then.”

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

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