Some Hilo restaurant owners and managers are hopeful that a new program which gives $500 pre-loaded dining cards to people receiving unemployment benefits will help generate additional business.
Sherry Menor McNamara, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii, announced Wednesday that the state will disburse $75 million via the dining cards to residents who are receiving unemployment insurance.
Between Oct. 20 and Dec. 15, recipients will be able to use those cards, which work like any other debit card, at local restaurants only, McNamara said.
Mario Castillo is the general manager at Cafe Pesto and was surprised by the news of the $500 dining cards.
“I think any kind of income for people is helpful right now,” Castillo said. “I think this will be a fun way for people to spend money they wouldn’t normally have.”
Cafe Pesto has been slow during the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been able to survive with a Paycheck Protection Program loan and partnerships with other businesses.
“I think this will really help us and give us a boost we need,” Castillo said. “I’m excited, and I hope the program can assist others, too.”
Debbie Ching-Maiava owns and operates Ken’s House of Pancakes and Ponds in Hilo and thinks the funds used for the pre-loaded dining cards could be used differently.
“I was thinking that something like that would be better suited for groceries, but I know they are trying to help restaurants,” Debbie Ching-Maiava said. “I think offering EBT cards or cards to be used for anything would be more helpful.”
While the $500 dining card may bring more people to Ken’s and Ponds, Ching-Maiava is skeptical that it will do much to help families who are struggling.
“The $500 boost will probably help us, but I don’t know if that will help families in the long run,” Ching-Maiava said. “Although it will help the restaurant community, I don’t think there will be a long-term impact for the whole community.”
The cards came at a good time for Asia Simpson, owner of Mohala’s Bayfront Fish and Chips, which has been having its slowest month yet.
“We’re excited about the dining cards, especially if people use them for small businesses,” Simpson said.
The restaurant has been operating in a takeout only capacity since reopening earlier this year.
“Truthfully, we’ve wanted to reopen the dining room, but haven’t had the manpower to work it out,” Simpson said. “Maybe the dining cards will help us be able to bring some people back.”
Brad Cruse, general manger of Cronies Bar &Grill, was excited to hear about the dining cards and hopeful that they help all restaurants that are struggling.
“I don’t see why it wouldn’t help. I think it’s great for the community,” Cruse said. “People might enjoy getting takeout or going out again.”
At the end of August, Cronies decided to move to online ordering and takeout only to help stop community spread of COVID-19 and keep employees safe. As Oct. 15 nears, Cronies is not planning on reopening for dine-in service just yet.
“We’re waiting for the numbers to flatline or go down significantly before reopening dine-in, ” Cruse said. “We want to keep our community as safe as possible, especially when tourism begins.”
People qualified for the dining card program will begin receiving cards in the mail in the coming weeks, without needing to apply.
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