On Monday, Justin Young, general manager of Koko Head Cafe, restocked the popular Kaimuki restaurant with enough local vegetables, bread, beef and fish to serve up a week’s worth of brunch-style bibimbap and poke omelettes.
Less than 24 hours later, when Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell ordered restaurants to close their dining rooms for a second time since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Young’s heart sank. Beyond his upset over what to do with all the bound-to-spoil food he had just purchased, Young was consumed with worry for his employees who, effective Thursday, are jobless again.
“It’s not on par with protesting Black Lives Matter or the forest fires going on in California, but these are 25 people that completely deserve to stay employed,” Young said. “And, I get it, public health is important. But we’re not part of the problem.”
Dine-in restaurants are among the many Oahu businesses required to close again as they were in early March as the island ramps up coronavirus testing, contact tracing and quarantine efforts with the help of the federal government.
The new emergency stay-at-home order took effect at 12:01 a.m. on Thursday and will last for two weeks. It comes as there are nearly 4,700 people with active COVID-19 infections under monitoring by the state health department, 95% of whom are on Oahu.
Business owners on Wednesday expressed scorn at the lack of advance notice about the shutdown from government officials. Yet while some workers said they felt anxious over the devastation the pandemic has caused to their personal finances, others said a shutdown, no matter how painful, seemed necessary to bring down Oahu’s runaway coronavirus infection numbers.
About 75% of Hawaii businesses have cut staff and made other cost-saving reductions, according to a business survey conducted in late July by the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization.
Depending on when tourism returns and the virus subsides, UHERO said between 6 and 15% of businesses may need to close permanently.
Even the owners of some essential businesses that are permitted to stay open during the shutdown said the new restrictions will undoubtably hurt their bottom line as residents sequester themselves inside their homes.
Parks, beaches and trails remain closed and commercial operations like hair salons, retail stores and gyms are now also shut down. Restaurants can offer takeout and delivery. But for Koko Head Cafe, that’s not a viable business model.
“We can’t afford to do takeout and delivery only,” Young said. “Our chefs are too expensive. Our labor is just too costly. Our rent is too costly. So we have no other choice but to shut down.”
The restaurant will remain open for takeout only through Sunday so the kitchen can try to make use of all the fresh food it just purchased.
“Had we been given a little more than 24 hours notice,” Young said, “maybe we could have done something more.”
Koko Head Cafe server Sierra Robles cried when she found out she was going to lose her job again. It was her 26th birthday. Instead of feeling celebratory, she said she felt panicked.
Robles said she filed for unemployment at the onset of the pandemic. But she has not yet received any payments.
She has managed to keep up with monthly rent and utility bills, which she said averages about $1,000, by digging into her college savings.
“I worked hard to have that money saved,” Robles said. “It was supposed to be for school and now it’s all down the drain. And I’m supposed to get all this backpay from unemployment, but when?”
By late July, Robles said, she had spent all the money she had stuffed away to one day pursue a career in underwater welding. She was working as many hours at the restaurant as she could, plus picking up sporadic jobs cleaning houses, but she still couldn’t make ends meet.
The situation was so distressing that one day at work Robles had a panic attack and had to go home early.
“The question is do we have a better plan for this shutdown than we did for the last one?” — Davy Paned, hairstylist
Soon after, Robles said she resorted to calling her parents to ask them for money to pay her August rent. She also notified them that she may have to give up her apartment and move back in with them.
It was a sobering conversation, she said.
“I’ve been out of my parents’ house since I was 17,” Robles said. “All my life I’ve been very independent and I’m very proud of that. I’m proud that I’ve never had to ask my parents for anything. This whole experience has been so humbling. When I look at the bigger picture I really feel like it’s an attack on the middle class.”
Robles said she applied for rental assistance. Meanwhile, her boyfriend asked her to move in with him as an alternative to falling behind on her rent payments.
It’s not that Robles doesn’t want to live with her partner, but she said she’s reluctant to conflate the next big, exciting step in their relationship with an act of desperation.
“The options are just so disheartening,” she said.
Even businesses designated as essential are bracing for a drop in revenue. At Brian’s Fishing Supply on King Street in Honolulu, owner Brent Young said he spent Wednesday preparing to parse down his employees’ hours as the two-week stay-at-home order loomed.
Although the pandemic has sent him new customers in the form of novice fishermen who are trying to reel in food for their families as a way to save on grocery expenses, Young said he predicts some of his customers will be hesitant to go fishing during the lockdown.
“Business has been really up and down,” Young said. “It takes people a while to go, ‘Oh, wait, fishing is essential. I can go to the beach to feed my family.’ People call all the time asking about the fishing rules because it’s not really clear.”
Barbers and hairstylists across the island reported surges in business on Wednesday as customers rushed to cut and color their hair before the lockdown.
At Hawaii Institute of Hair Design in Chinatown, hairstylist Davy Paned offered his students a final day of in-person instruction before the training school pivots to online classes.
The art of hairstyling is not conducive to virtual learning, Paned acknowledged. But he said it’s the only viable alternative until hands-on education can resume again.
Although the stay-at-home order will hurt his personal finances and force him to file for unemployment, Paned said he supports it. The virus has grown out of control on Oahu, he said, and too many residents aren’t taking the threat seriously.
“The question is do we have a better plan for this shutdown than we did for the last one?” Paned said. “Let’s have a better plan, and if it means two weeks of shutting down so that the government can figure it out, all I can say is please figure it out so that we can move forward.”
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