On Friday, as Oahu retail stores reopened from coronavirus closures, shop clerks and managers went back to work juggling feelings of apprehension, relief and hope.

“I was a little anxious opening up today,” said Justin Nakasone, manager of Banks Journal in Chinatown.

But he was also a little bit excited. Covering his nose and mouth with a bandana, Nakasone said he reopened the shop’s doors without any expectations.

Ala Moana Center, along with other Oahu shopping centers, reopened on Friday. Shoppers were asked to wear masks and practice social distancing. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The international surf apparel brand was still gaining momentum in Hawaii when the pandemic hit. Its Chinatown store is only six months old. Now the art shows and social events that had been helping the brand gain a footing in its new home are out of the question.

How the brand will claim its niche in the throes of a public health crisis — and with zero tourist traffic — remains to be seen.

While other retail shops on the same block kept their doors shut, opting for a wait-and-see approach, Nakasone said he felt eager to move forward, despite the discomfort of operating a business amid a deluge of unknowns.

To help secure a sound future for his employer, as well as his own livelihood, Nakasone said he is taking a temporary 30% salary cut.

“The old paradigms are not there anymore and I know other business owners are already wondering if it’s going to be worth the rent to keep their storefronts open,” he said. “I’m here to test the waters.”

As she pulled into Ala Moana Center Friday morning, Kai-li Kim, 18, of Ewa Beach, said she felt a jolt of nervousness.

The parking lot was full of cars for the first time in two months. 

“We were the last kiosk to close,” said Kim, who works at Stickers Hawaii. “Those last few weeks in March were really, really dead. So it was a lot to see so many people here my first day back.” 

The business, which sells Hawaii-themed stickers, relies on sales from tourists, Kim said. But she said the owner was ready to reopen despite the sudden exodus of its customer base.

Now, Kim said, the company will need to pay attention to what locals like. Former best sellers, such as the sticker of a pink hibiscus set above the word Waikiki, may no longer be popular. 

“We’re going to take it slow and see how it goes,” she said.

‘The Whole Shopping Experience Has Changed’

More than a dozen customers lined up outside the Big Island Candies storefront for its grand reopening, which marked the launch of a carefully redesigned shopping experience. 

Shoppers were directed to a hand sanitizing station upon entering the store. Then they were greeted by a personal shopping assistant who walked them through a private product display. 

Up to eight shoppers are permitted in the store at a time.

At Big Island Candies, store manager Carolyn Iwasaki said safety is the top priority. A personal shopping assistant is now assigned to each customer. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

“The whole shopping experience has changed for us,” said Carolyn Iwasaki, the Ala Moana stores’s retail operations manager. “It’s more personalized now.” 

Shoppers who wish to make a purchase can place an order with their personal shopping assistant. 

A staff member then retrieves the merchandise from a back storage room.

The shopper picks up their gourmet cookies and candies at the register, which is protected by a 4-foot-tall sneeze guard. 

To minimize the spread of germs, shoppers are not permitted to bring in reusable shopping bags from home.

“The safety of our staff and customers is the priority now but we’re really trying to simplify the experience,” Iwasaki said. “We’re doing it on the fly and making changes as we go.”

Big Island Candies’ sign indicates entrance protocols on the first day Ala Moana Center was reopened to customers. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

At Na Hoku fine jewelers, staff now clean every piece of jewelry with alcohol before and after customers try it on. The business upgraded its Windex glass cleaner to a version that has a disinfectant. All of the wood counter accents, walls and air vents have been scrubbed clean, as well.

The family-owned jewelry business is keeping its eight other Oahu stores closed because they depend heavily on tourists, whereas the Ala Moana store has a mostly local clientele. 

All told, 68 people have been furloughed from the Oahu retail stores and another 100 employees remain furloughed from Na Hoku’s Honolulu factory, which also remains closed.

Julia MacDonald, Na Hoku’s Oahu district manager, said she was eager to come back to work. The store’s first-day customers, she said, tended to be people in need of jewelry repair or folks shopping for a special gift for someone else.

“It’s just good to hear sounds in the mall,” MacDonald said. “I came in a few times when it was closed and it was just eerie. 

“But today I saw some of our normal customers and the regular mall walkers who come with their dogs and it was just good to see that there are people willing to go out and try to get back to normal.”

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