Isle businesses guarded about Oct. 15 reopening

  • In this 2018 file photo, Katrina Moniz checks the fitting of a backpack for a customer at the Hawaii Forest and Trail retail store in the Kaloko Light Industrial Area in Kailua-Kona. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

While the state has announced that some restrictions on travel to Hawaii will be lifted Oct. 15, many businesses are skeptical whether the plan will actually happen.

Oct. 15 is the fourth date on which the state has announced it would loosen the mandatory 14-day quarantine requirement for out-of-state travelers who pre-test negative for COVID-19 within 72 hours of arrival.

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Gov. David Ige had previously announced that travel restrictions would be loosened in July, August and September, pushing back the date repeatedly as the pandemic worsened throughout the state.

Because of the frequently shifting milestone, some Big Island businesses are not confident in the latest date.

“We’ve seen so many other dates come and go,” said Jason Cohn, president of tour group Hawaii Forest and Trail. “We’re taking this one with a grain of salt. We won’t be rushing to reopen until it actually happens.”

While the lower restrictions are expected to bring a much-needed influx of visitors to the island, Cohn said businesses that are too eager to reopen risk taking a big financial hit if the date is pushed back again.

“I know there were a lot of businesses that reopened after one of the last announcements, and they ended up paying for it,” Cohn said.

Doug Arnott, owner of Arnott’s Lodge &Hiking Adventures, agreed, saying he’s “not going to go out and buy anything or hire anyone” until after the restrictions are lowered.

“I don’t think anybody’s going to be jumping up and down over that date,” Arnott said. “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Cohn said every tour company on the island will need bookings in order to reopen, but he added that even more than a week after the Oct. 15 date was announced, there has not yet been a flood of eager out-of-staters making reservations.

Cohn surmised that visitors, like businesses, are waiting to see if the date will pan out.

Arnott pointed out that, even when tour businesses do return to work, they will be operating under much slimmer profit margins: Not only will there be fewer guests in general, but companies will have to put fewer guests in each tour bus in order to comply with social distancing requirements. For some businesses, Arnott said, the cut may not be worth it.

But at the same time, many businesses can’t hold out much longer. Further delays to the reopening date likely will spell the end for businesses struggling to remain solvent.

“We’ve been barely maintaining since March,” said Teri Leischer, managing partner at Jack’s Diving Locker in Kailua-Kona. “I think we’re down 69% (of customers) from normal.”

While Jack’s Diving Locker has remained open throughout the pandemic, it has had to make changes as out-of-state tourism dried up, Leischer said. Where once Jack’s catered nearly exclusive to visitors, the business now provides deals to kama‘aina and holds keiki diving lessons.

“We’ve been trying to get out to locals,” said Nikki Smith of the Volcano Winery, adding that pre-pandemic the business relied primarily on tour companies shuttling visitors to Volcano.

Smith said the winery has reduced customer-facing staff to about two workers per day, while the amount of wine sold daily has dropped from about 200 bottles a day to 30 bottles or less.

Even if visitors return in October, Smith said the winery will continue to require social distancing and masks from customers, which was echoed by other businesses.

But, like Arnott, Leischer noted that even if the Oct. 15 date comes to pass, the business’ woes may not be over.

“If people start coming back, they won’t be happy if there’s nowhere they can actually go,” said Jeff Leischer, Teri’s husband and co-managing partner.

For example, at least until Sept. 30, Big Island beaches are closed entirely to commercial operations, by emergency order of Mayor Harry Kim.

Thanks to money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, Jeff Leischer said Jack’s was able to hold keiki diving lessons from a boat, but CARES money has long since dried up.

Teri Leischer said the commercial restriction will hopefully be lifted by Oct. 15, as bills are piling up — the Leischers still have to keep up with mortgage payments on the business and maintaining health insurance coverage for the business’ 40 employees.

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“We’ve managed so far,” Teri Leischer said. “We keep finding new rabbits to pull out of hats.”

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

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