The pandemic has sunk businesses by land, air and sea.
For Jeff Leicher, an owner and managing partner of Jack’s Diving Locker, a snorkel, scuba diving and touring company in Kailua-Kona on the Big Island whose business has thrived since 1981 in the latter category, that meant he had to get creative to keep his operation afloat during the shutdown precipitated by COVID-19.
With quarantines in place and tourism in the islands at catastrophic lows, he and his wife Teri knew their options were limited.
Limited, sure, but that doesn’t mean non-existent.
“I wasn’t sure the whole time if we were going to survive it,” said Leicher. “But I knew we weren’t going down without a fight.”
This week, Hawaii island, along with the rest of the state, reopened to tourism by allowing trans-Pacific travelers to visit without having to quarantine, provided they can produce a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of departure. The Big Island is also requiring a second test taken — free of charge — at the airport upon arrival.
With that door opened, Leicher can spy the end of what’s been an unsteady road.
“I can see the light,” he said with a sigh of relief.
To get here from there, the Leichers relied on what’s always been a supportive community – their own.
Partnering with a pair of local nonprofits, the Malama Kai Foundation and the Nakoa Foundation, they applied for and received a grant through the County of Hawaii CARES Act to provide scholarships to Big Island keiki to participate in snorkeling, scuba diving and traditional Hawaiian sailing camps at no cost to the families.
Jack’s usually offered the camps during summer vacations when students had a lot of free time. But never to the scale of what they were able to offer with the grant when the pandemic closed classrooms much longer than a typical seasonal break.
So far, around 120 kids have participated in the various camps, which offer students plenty of ocean time, the ability to become scuba certified, and teach the importance of conservation as well.
Included is instruction on local marine life and Hawaiian language and culture.
They feed the children two meals a day and allow them access to computers should they need to take part in online learning — it is currently the school year, after all.
“Oh man, stoked,” Leicher said of the kids’ reaction, some of whom took up to five-week courses. “The parents are just in tears of gratitude.”
That’s because the abundance of activities benefited mom and dad, too, as they could return to work and not have to worry about providing child care.
Another creative endeavor the company did during the shutdown, it used its Payroll Protection Program money to pay its staff to inspect and repair every boat mooring in West Hawaii. Those state-run buoys allow commercial and recreational boaters to tie up to permanent moorings at dive sites without needing to drop anchors on West Hawaii’s delicate coral reefs.
If there’s one downside, it’s that Jack’s didn’t secure enough money to fund as many camps as would meet the demand. Spaces quickly hit capacity – there’s currently a waiting list – and camps will likely end in November, although if demand for paid participation allows the program to continue, it will.
But with travel restrictions looking to ease come Thursday, Leicher said he’s grateful for the community’s support that helped his team navigate the precarious economic seas.
“It’s all we had,” he said of the kama’aina market. “And they really supported us.”
Now, smoother waters appear ahead. Jack’s had a “banner year” pre-COVID-19, but through the programs was able to retain 36 of their 49 employees during the ordeal. Today, they have nearly 50 off-island bookings through the end of the month.
“We don’t give up easily,” Leicher said.
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