WASHINGTON — Zippy’s restaurants, the Kahala Hotel & Resort and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s parent company, Oahu Publications, were among the top beneficiaries of a federal loan program meant to prevent mass layoffs during the global COVID-19 pandemic that has hit Hawaii’s economy harder than any other state.

On Monday, the U.S. Treasury Department released data that showed those three companies were among those that received between $5 million and $10 million through a federal forgivable loan program created as part of a $2 trillion coronavirus relief package that was first approved in March.

In all, more than 24,000 Hawaii businesses, corporations and nonprofits, including religious organizations, participated in the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, securing more than $2.5 billion in loans that were used to support more than 225,000 jobs.

Waikiki Beach is empty during the Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. April 13, 2020.
The once crowded beaches of Waikiki are now mostly vacant due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The money was supposed to be targeted to small businesses, and help Hawaii’s employers pay their staff during mandatory travel quarantines and stay-at-home work orders that effectively shut down the state’s tourism-driven economy and forced hundreds of thousands of workers to file for unemployment benefits.

The data shows the largest share of loans — both in terms of numbers and amounts — went to hotels, restaurants and construction companies.

Dentists, physicians and other healthcare providers, such as Hale Mauka Health Services and Maui Medical Group, also received large sums through the PPP program.

More than anything, though, the data shows just how many different groups reached out for federal assistance during the pandemic. The list is long and includes lots of familiar names, from the Bishop Museum and Catholic Charities of Hawaii to Love’s Bakery and City Mill to Tamura Enterprises and the Institute for Health Services.

The loan program, which is supposed to help businesses with fewer than 500 employees, has generated controversy.

After the first tranche of government money was made available, dozens of large companies and publicly traded firms, including major franchises such as Ruth’s Chris steakhouse and Shake Shack burger joints as well as big enterprises like the Los Angeles Lakers, received millions of dollars in loans meant for small businesses, many of which lost out on the early bonanza. The public backlash resulted in dozens of companies pledging to return the funds.

Other concerns involve the lack of transparency and public oversight. Both the Treasury and Small Business Administration, which runs the PPP program, refused to release the names of companies receiving federal loans.

The obfuscation resulted in a number of media organizations and news outlets filing a joint lawsuit to force the release of the loan data.

Still, the information made public Monday only provides a glimpse into where the money has gone. That’s because the Treasury Department has released only the names of companies receiving more than $150,000 in loans. For those companies, the department is providing only a range of how much each particular company received.

That means information on more than 21,000 companies in Hawaii that received loans of $150,000 or less — more than $700 million in taxpayer money altogether — will not be made public.

There are still questions about whether the money will be enough to stave off economic catastrophe for businesses receiving federal assistance.

In a press release, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said Monday’s data release, “strikes the appropriate balance of providing the American people with transparency, while protecting sensitive payroll and personal income information of small businesses, sole proprietors, and independent contractors.”

More than 370 Hawaii companies received more than $1 million through the Paycheck Protection Program, according to the data. The maximum any one company can receive is $10 million.

The data shows only 20 companies, corporations and nonprofits were approved for loans between $5 million and $10 million.

Among them were the parent companies of some of the Aloha State’s most recognizable business and trade groups, from FCH Enterprises, which is the umbrella business of Zippy’s restaurants and Napoleon’s Bakery to McCabe, Hamilton, and Renny Co., which is one of the oldest stevedore companies on the islands.

Others receiving large sums through the PPP program include the Mid-Pacific Institute, a private college preparatory academy in Honolulu, Roy’s Holdings, which owns the Roy’s restaurants franchise, and Kyo-Ya Hotels & Resorts, which owns two of Waikiki’s most iconic hotels, the Moana and Royal Hawaiian.

There are still questions about whether the money will be enough to stave off economic catastrophe for businesses receiving federal assistance. For instance, Oahu Publications is among the group of businesses that received the largest loan amount in the state, yet still needed to implement layoffs, including 12 reporters at the Star-Advertiser.

Another question involves the extent to which the program achieved its goal, which was to keep workers on payrolls of companies that were effectively shut down by stay-at-home orders.

Initially, the results don’t seem good, said Carl Bonham, executive director of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization. Bonham said there are two things to look at when assessing whether a PPP loan actually kept people in jobs that would otherwise have been shut down.

The first, he said, is whether the business was shut down in the first place because of stay-at-home orders. The second is whether the business took out the loan simply to have cash on hand to cover expenses and not to hire workers.

Bonham pointed to a recent webinar featuring Harvard economist Raj Chetty, who looked at the effect of the program nationally. Among other things, Chetty presented research that compared employment trends of businesses with about 1,300 workers that would not have qualified for the loans with small businesses of about 100 workers, which were the program’s target. The analysis found no difference between the two.

“What we think is going on is the businesses who took out these loans may be exactly the ones who did not intend to lay off their workers to begin with,” Bonham said.

Civil Beat reporter Stewart Yerton contributed to this story.

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