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Hilo restaurants curtail services in response to COVID-19 spike

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Traffic cones blocked the parking lot at Ken's House of Pancakes on Monday. Ken's announced one of its employees tested positive for COVID-19 and is closed until Sept. 15.

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald A customer walks out of Hilo Burger Joint's patio area Monday with a takeout order. Hilo Burger Joint closed its dining room to help keep employees and customers safe.

Some Hilo restaurants are temporarily closing or reverting back to takeout service only because of a surge in COVID-19 cases in East Hawaii.

Ken’s House of Pancakes, a popular restaurant for locals and tourists, closed Saturday after one of its employees tested positive for the virus.

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Before the closure, owner Debbie Ching-Maiava was worried about the future of Ken’s as well as her other restaurant, Ponds, and had planned a meeting with her employees to gauge how they were feeling about work.

“We were just a week away from meeting with everyone to see if they were still comfortable working,” Ching-Maiava said. “The positive result made the decision for me.”

After learning about the positive result on Saturday, Ching-Maiava decided to put out cones to block the parking lot, close immediately, and quickly inform her customers over social media.

“We really just wanted to do this as properly as possible,” Ching-Maiava said. “I know that closing will be the safest option for our employees and customers.”

Although Ken’s has temporarily closed until at least Sept. 15, Ponds is continuing to serve dine-in customers at half capacity by keeping the restaurant clean and requiring face masks for all employees and customers.

“We sanitize, sanitize, sanitize like there’s no tomorrow, so we can have a tomorrow,” Ching-Maiava said.

Many locals have been coming to Ken’s and Ponds to show their support during the pandemic, but it’s barely enough traffic to sustain the two businesses, according to Ching-Maiava.

“We’re still limping along, mostly trying to keep people working and keep people fed,” Ching-Maiava said. “At this point, we’re just trying to break even.”

Ching-Maiava has had to lay off more 30 employees from Ken’s and Ponds. Ken’s, which normally operates with 65 employees, had 44 people working regularly.

The 44 people on the payroll will maintain their health insurance and should be able to collect unemployment while they wait for Ken’s to reopen.

“I have seen other businesses making adjustments and going back to takeout only after Ken’s had to close,” Ching-Maiava said. “Everyone seems to be respecting the virus right now, which is good to see.”

In light of Ken’s closure and the recent surge in cases, Rhonda Nichols decided to curtail operations at Hilo Burger Joint and offer takeout options only beginning last Sunday.

None of Nichols’ employees tested positive for COVID-19, but she wanted to take precautionary steps to help her staff remain healthy.

“Things were just off for me last week,” Nichols said. “We saw some new faces, there were more to-go orders, and it just felt like there was extra caution in the air.”

Nichols talked to her staff about the possibility of moving to a takeout only model again, and the majority agreed to make the change.

“I want to keep the community safe, but this is mostly about keeping my staff safe,” Nichols said. “This is going to be a hit in business, but it’s better than nothing.”

Employees will have a reduction in shifts as Hilo Burger Joint transitions back to takeout service. However, many employees support the change since they will be able to keep their families safer than before.

“This decision was based solely on my employees’ needs, and I don’t shame anyone else that has to do things differently,” Nichols said. “I just thought that I don’t need a government mandate to know what to do for my business.”

Kuhio Grille made a similar decision to cease dine-in service and as of Monday is only offering takeout orders.

“At this time, we feel that this is the best decision for the safety of everyone,” owner Lauren Araki said. “This was not an easy decision, but we’ll get through it.”

No employees have tested positive for the virus at Kuhio Grille, but Araki wanted to take precautions for her staff and the patrons who frequent the restaurant.

“We’ve had very positive feedback from our supportive customers,” Araki said. “Business will definitely be slower, but it helps to have that community support.”

Although Kuhio Grille will have to lay off employees to survive the takeout-only model, Araki hopes to retain as many workers as possible.

“These are not easy decisions to make, and it’s so hard to hear of any local business closing right now,” Araki said. “This is such a hard time for everyone.”

Cronies Bar and Grill also announced over social media that it would be closing the dining room, but will stay open for takeout and curbside service for the foreseeable future.

Makuu Farmers Market in Puna has closed until the market is “safe for everyone.”

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And Leung’s Chop Suey House has remained closed since Friday after an employee tested positive for COVID-19.

Email Kelsey Walling at kwalling@hawaiitribune-herald.com

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