When the founders of Yoga Room Hawaii opened in October, they knew they faced challenges. What they didn’t know, says Naomi Iwabuchi, a studio co-owner, was the extent of the challenges or how long they would last.

Now, as Honolulu eases operating restrictions on a range of businesses Thursday, fitness clubs like Yoga Room can, well, stretch out a bit. The change means indoor fitness classes can double in size, to nine students plus a teacher from four plus a teacher.

The change, which technically means moving to the city’s Tier 3 from Tier 2, might seem trivial. But Iwabuchi said it will mean Yoga Room can serve 450 students in person per week, spread out among 50 classes, compared with 200 previously. Many yogis previously stuck on a waitlist or relegated to Zoom classes can now come in person.

“We’re really celebrating Tier 3,” she said.

As Honolulu eases operating restrictions for a range of businesses today, many businesses, such as the shuttered DHS T Galleria, have already decided to close. Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat

The change might be incremental. Restaurants, for instance, can go to full capacity but still must adhere to 6-foot social distancing rules. They can increase the size of a dining party to 10 from five. Arcades can go to 50% capacity from 25%, and retailers can go to full capacity from 50%.

But during a week when Gov. David Ige laid out the vision of a less-than-speedy opening, promising to reach a “new normal” only before year’s end, the change offers people some good news now.

“It definitely will help us a lot,” said Chris Kajioka, the chef of the high-end restaurants Miro Kaimuki and Hau Tree and the casual burger and saimin joint Papa Kurt’s.

Being able to seat parties of as many as 10 simply provides more flexibility for places like Miro, he said.

At the same time, Kajioka said, a bigger change would be to allow restaurants to serve alcohol until midnight instead of 10 p.m., which is now the cut-off. The current rule means finer restaurants can reasonably have only one seating per night, starting at the more popular times like 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. Seating a new party at, say, 8:30 and saying wine and cocktails end at 10 doesn’t work, he said.

This is a major blow to revenue.

“I don’t know what restaurant can do one seating and be sustainable,” he said.

“The game changer for restaurants really is the alcohol stopping at 10 o’clock,” he said.

The change in tiers that goes into effect Thursday might seem minor, but it will allow Yoga Room Hawaii in Kaimuki to teach some 450 students a week in person compared to just 200. Eric Rosso/Yoga Room Hawaii

Hotel industry officials are also welcoming the change.

Mufi Hannemann, a former Honolulu mayor who now runs the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, called the change “certainly a step in the right direction.”

He commended Mayor Rick Blangiardi for letting restaurants operate at 100% capacity as long as they impose 6-foot spaces between tables. It’s the sort of thing that can give hope to the meetings and conventions business, which has been stifled, Hannemann said.

But, Hannemann said, vaccinating hotel industry workers should be a priority.

And so, he said, should Lt. Gov. Josh Green’s proposal to let travelers sidestep Hawaii’s 10-day quarantine by showing proof of having been vaccinated. A quarantine exemption is now allowed only for travelers who show proof of a negative test within 72 hours of landing in Hawaii.

“I give him high marks for that,” he said. “That’s ultimately where we have to go, to have a passport to paradise, where you don’t have to take a test and don’t have to quarantine if you’ve been vaccinated,” he said.

Dr. Libby Char, director of the Hawaii Department of Health, earlier this week said Green’s proposed vaccination passport program won’t happen soon.

Two Thirds Of Businesses Suffer Severe Revenue Losses

It’s hard to overstate how difficult the COVID-19 crisis has been for businesses on Oahu and in the rest of the state. The Chamber of Commerce Hawaii conducted a survey of more than 2,000 members between December and January, and received 309 responses, 73% from Oahu businesses.

More than two thirds of respondents are facing severe revenue losses, the survey found, with an overall average decline of 45% from 2019 to 2020. This caused nearly half — 45% — to cut jobs.

It would have been much worse but for the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, the survey found. Some 18% said they got PPP money, which prevented layoffs. On average the businesses expect it will take 16 months to bounce back.

Howard Miao, owner of the jewelry store Maxi in Waikiki, said the loss of Japanese tourists has devastated his business. Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat

The Yoga Room has been able to stay in business in part because it geared up for Zoom classes from the start, said Iwabuchi, who co-owns the studio with three other partners: Eric Rosso, Paula Colletti and Max Hannemann, who is Mufi Hannemann’s cousin. Teachers and students were patient in dealing with the technology, she said.

And students have showed a willingness to wear face masks and the teachers face shields and headset microphones, even during classes in a heated studio.

“Everybody’s been really gracious and understanding,” she said.

But many businesses haven’t been so fortunate.

Waikiki on a typical weekday afternoon is far from what it once was before the pandemic, when hordes of tourists clogged Kalakaua Avenue, many of them Japanese visitors snapping up luxury items at shops like Louis Vuitton and Tiffany & Co.

The bustling crowds have given way to clusters of a few people, mostly masked and socially distanced from each other.

Japanese tourists are practically non-existent.

Armani Exchange clothing store is hard to miss with a big storefront on Kalakaua, but gone are the days when people would mosey in to browse, said Nobleza Bumanglag, the store’s assistant manager. Traffic’s down 90% since before the pandemic, she said, even though the avenue brims with life starting Thursday through the weekend.

She said switching tiers probably won’t make much difference.

“It probably won’t affect us,” she said.

The story was much the same inside the sparkling Waikiki Shopping Plaza on Kalakaua. Howard Miao, of the locally owned Maxi jewelers, said he has been suffering for a year. With 95% of his customers consisting of Japanese tourists, he said, his business is practically dead.

It’s not the fault of Hawaii officials, he said. Japanese travel policies require returning travelers to quarantine for two weeks, so that’s kept them from visiting Hawaii.

Many of his neighbors in the mall have shut down, Miao said, along with big businesses on Kalakaua, like the DFS Group’s T Galleria, whose façade is now a wall of plywood.

Miao said he, too, might have been a casualty but for an understanding landlord and a Paycheck Protection Program loan from the SBA.

Still, he said, if the lack of Japanese visitors persists, many more small, locally owned businesses will fail. He surveyed his shop full of sparkling, handmade jewelry, but no customers.

“I don’t know why I’m still here,” he said.

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