In November, after a seven-month shutdown because of the coronavirus, Kauai’s largest hotel brought back nearly half its staff of 900 and reopened to the public as demand for a Garden Isle vacation suddenly surged following the implementation of the state’s new pre-travel testing program.
Occupancy rates at the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa were less than half of what they would typically be during the buildup to the holiday season, said Katy Britzmann, the sales and marketing director for the Poipu resort.
But considering the realities of the global pandemic, signs of economic recovery were bubbling up enough to merit unstacking the pool furniture and firing up the restaurants.
Hawaii’s Safe Travels program, which was launched on Oct. 15, was a boon for businesses statewide since it allowed incoming travelers to avoid a strict 14-day quarantine with proof of a negative COVID-19 test result.
On Kauai, the number of visitors arriving at Lihue Airport shot up overnight from six to nearly 700. By the Saturday before Thanksgiving, the island was getting more than 1,600 travelers per day.
“It was not a full recovery by any stretch,” Britzmann said. “But we were looking forward to a good festive period.”
Then, on the day after Thanksgiving, the trend toward recovery abruptly went bust.
Gov. David Ige announced his approval of a request from Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami to pull out of the Safe Travels program and reinstate a 14-day quarantine for all travelers arriving on the Garden Isle.
The mayor argued that a pause from an influx of travelers was needed to help the island regain control of the virus after Kauai cases rose from less than one per day on average in October before the travel program took effect to a peak seven-day average of 3.3 new cases a day on Nov. 25.
Lihue Airport passenger arrivals plunged by more than 90% after the quarantine mandate was restored on Dec. 2.
The effect on travel and island businesses was immediate, sapping the economy’s momentum and leaving thousands of workers unemployed again at a time of year that is ordinarily the island’s busiest.
After just five weeks, the Grand Hyatt Kauai shut down indefinitely again.
“Once (the quarantine decision) went into effect it became a foregone conclusion that we were going to have to close our doors,” Britzmann said. “We couldn’t keep people in their rooms for 14 days.”
Mark Perriello, president of the Kauai Chamber of Commerce, said many businesses are on their last lifeline.
“Small businesspeople stand to lose everything that they have worked a lifetime to build and, in some cases, generations to build,” Perriello said in an email.
Kenny Ishii said the county’s decision was the last straw for his family’s 40-year-old restaurant, which had been closed since the pandemic began in March.
The Ono Family Restaurant in Kapaa will not be reopening its doors, Ishii said.
“On Kauai we’re so dependent on tourism and that’s such a bad thing,” said 68-year-old Ishii, who said he is most upset about laying off the 15 employees whom he considers his family.
“You can’t just turn off travel,” he added. “We can’t survive without it.”
Kauai tour guide Maria “Coco Maria” Camero said she was ecstatic to get back to work in October. She paid $4,000 to restart her general liability insurance and in four weeks offered five small sightseeing tours through her company Kauai Soul Travels.
It was a trickle — but better than nothing.
“What we’ve heard from our visitors is, ‘We’re trying too hard to come to Hawaii and we’re just going to go someplace else.’” — Jim Braman, The Cliffs at Princeville
Now that tourism is basically nonexistent again, Camero said she is going to reapply for a Small Business Administration loan, something she had previously resisted.
For now, Camero said she’s trying to make a living catering to the needs of quarantined visitors and residents through a grocery delivery service, but those earnings are a drop in the bucket compared to her pre-pandemic average monthly income of about $8,000.
“It felt so good to get back to work and now it’s like — boom — here we go again,” Camero said. “I know we’ve got to protect our kupuna and our community, but it just seems a little bit radical. I don’t know what it’s like to be in the shoes of the mayor and the governor. I just wish they could find a middle ground.”
For Jim Braman, general manager of The Cliffs at Princeville, the biggest problem with Hawaii’s COVID-19 response has been the constant changes in policy governing interisland travel.
“Some guests we’ve had to call four different times,” he said. “It’s, ‘You can’t come. Oh, wait, now you can come — but you have to do this, this and this. Oh, wait, now you can’t come at all.’ It’s thousands of phone calls.”
“What we’ve heard from our visitors is, ‘We’re trying too hard to come to Hawaii and we’re just going to go someplace else,’” Braman said.
In addition to short-term vacationers, The Cliffs attracts a portion of timeshare guests who tend to stay at the 22-acre resort for up to three months at a time. With this population in mind, the resort earned approval to operate as what’s known as a resort bubble.
Kauai has five of these “enhanced movement quarantine” properties wherein guests can utilize resort amenities — golf courses, swimming pools, spa services — during their quarantine. But they can’t leave the property, not even to venture to the beach.
Guests must wear an electronic monitoring bracelet that tracks their movements within the resort boundaries. Social distancing and mask-wearing protocols still apply.
And although the county’s rules don’t mandate any testing, The Cliffs still requires guests to receive a negative COVID-19 test result prior to flying to Kauai following state protocol. The resort mandates the testing to help ensure staff safety, Braman said.
The resort bubble model has boosted the number of guests at The Cliffs compared with other hotels that have a much shorter average guest stay due to the quarantine.
However, it’s not as lucrative, Braman said.
“We would actually save quite a bit of money if we just closed down,” he said. But Braman said the resort needs to accommodate timeshare owners who paid for their stays as much as a year in advance. The resort also wants to keep as many employees on the payroll as it can, he said.
The Koa Kea Hotel and Resort, another resort bubble participant, has not seen as much interest from travelers.
“People just don’t want to quarantine — period,” said Sharolyn Kawakami, the resort’s general manager who is not related to the island’s mayor.
“I think the desire is to actually come to Kauai and visit a lot of the beautiful scenery and to be able to rent a car and travel and go to the beach,” she said. “With this, you can’t even go in the ocean.”
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