As the COVID-19 crisis batters Hawaii’s tourism sector, legal and business experts say there are ways to buffer the hardship that will fall onto the most vulnerable participants in the economy: the workers and small business owners at the bottom of the pecking order.

Economists expect thousands of job losses over the next nine months as the state’s most important employment sector bears the brunt of the virus’ economic fallout.

Already lenders are beginning to announce programs to ease the burden on mortgage holders. The federal government has announced a program to help bail out small businesses. At least one major landlord has expressed a willingness to work with tenants.

Waikiki Beach empty. 2020
Waikiki Beach, which was largely empty on Tuesday, has suffered a steep drop in hotel occupancy, forcing properties to cut hours for workers. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Plus, there might be legal remedies that people don’t know about.

“What is important is that people and companies understand what their rights are,” said Margery Bronster, a former Hawaii attorney general who now practices business litigation, including consumer rights cases.

For example, Bronster said, contracts and leases often contain clauses that provide relief for tenants or other parties in the event of a natural disaster or other major unexpected event. In addition, parties might have rights under contract law in addition to the ones spelled out in the documents, Bronster said.

A business person who entered a contract to buy goods to resell at an event might be able to get out of the contract if the event got cancelled because of coronavirus, Bronster said. But much depends on the precise language of the contract, which generally must be analyzed on a case by case basis, she said.

Invariably, she said, some disputes will end up in court. But generally, “It’s not going to benefit either side to try to resolve their differences in court.”

Bank of Hawaii CEO Peter Ho co-chair and Speaker Scott Saiki during the Coronavirus Committee hearing at the Capitol.
Peter Ho, left, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Bank of Hawaii, announced a relief program for borrowers on Wednesday. Ho also is co-chair of a coronavirus committee established this month by House Speaker Scott Saiki, center. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Already, some institutions are taking steps to work with people. Bank of Hawaii on Wednesday announced programs to give people the ability to adjust their payments for mortgages, home equity loans and other loans for up to three months.

“We know our local community is already feeling the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak,” Peter Ho, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Bank of Hawaii, said in a statement. “This is an unprecedented situation, and by offering these financial assistance programs as quickly as possible, we hope it eases some of the financial stress and burden our customers may face.”

First Hawaiian Bank also reached out with a statement offering relief to borrowers.

“We strongly encourage customers who experience financial hardship due to this public health challenge to contact their banker to discuss the options available for their specific situation,” the bank said.

Others were also addressing issues on a case-by-case basis. Todd Apo, senior vice president of community development for the Howard Hughes Corp., which owns Kakaako’s Ward Village development, said it also will talk to tenants “one on one.”

“We know we’re going to come out of this,” Apo said. “This is not a situation that doesn’t have an end. We just don’t know when that end is now.”

Public officials also announced policies to ease the burden on the public.

Gov. David Ige, for example, urged residential landlords to not seek to evict tenants for non-payment of rent, and the state Department of Public Safety said it wouldn’t enforce eviction orders anyway. Hawaiian Electric said it would suspend service disconnections for non-payment of bills through at least April 17.

“With everything that’s going on, and with the impacts to the Hawaii economy just starting to be known, we don’t want people who are struggling financially to worry about having this essential service interrupted,” said Shelee Kimura, Hawaiian Electric’s senior vice president of customer service.

“We’re providing this special assistance by setting up payment plans and making other arrangements for customers who let us know about their situation.”

‘Nobody Is Spared’

These announcements came as federal officials also were rolling out plans. The U.S. Small Business Administration has set up a disaster loan program for companies affected by COVID-19. The agency plans to work directly with state governors to provide low-interest loans of up to $2 million to small businesses and nonprofits that have been severely impacted by the virus.

With Hawaii’s courts also running on a limited basis, it amounts to something of a holiday for debtors, said David Farmer, a Honolulu bankruptcy lawyer.

And when the holiday ends, he said, the pain will likely be shared at least somewhat by big creditors and landlords. Even these players at the top of the food chain might have to take a financial haircut when it comes to getting paid back.

“Nobody is spared,” he said. “Like the supply chain, it’s a chain.

“Right now, we’re on the edge of a precipice, just waiting for a free fall.”

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