Bleak Economic Future Ahead Amid Growing COVID-19 Fears, State Leaders Say

March 12, 2020, 5:00 PM HST (Updated March 12, 2020, 6:33 PM)
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Economy experts say it looks like Hawai‘i is headed into a recession as COVID-19 concerns continue to worry communities worldwide.

House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness met for the first time on March 12 at the State Capitol to identify how the novel coronavirus will impact the state and to discuss solutions.

“While the State Administration has done a commendable job overseeing the medical aspects of coronavirus, we also knew that Hawai‘i had to be prepared for the economic and financial impact of the virus,” said House Speaker Scott K. Saiki.

Those at the table discussed how the pandemic will impact the state from various points — health, tourism, travel, shipments, business, unemployment, construction, etc. Carl Bonham, executive director of Economic Research Organization at University of Hawaii (UHERO), indicated the economic forecast is bleak.

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Bonham said it looks like job losses will be at 1.5%. Hotel occupancy rates are projected to drop. “It looks like a recession for Hawai‘i, it looks like a recession for the US.”

“As we get into the end of March, things will deteriorate further,” Bonham said. “How long this goes on, no one knows.”

Bonham added the health side of the issue is paramount.

“One of the worst possible scenarios is we have widespread outbreak in Hawai‘i,” he said.

Bonham said while he’s seen changes in policy, he hasn’t seen a statewide policy on travel — “it seems we are past due.”

Despite the economic impacts projected, those at the committee meeting indicated that shipping operations have continued without interruptions. Since most of the products imported come from the mainland, they add, they don’t foresee changes or a decrease in supply at this time.

Matson officials say they’d like to keep their ports open as it’s good for the community at large.

“The public should have confidence in our food supply chains,” they said.

Lauren Zirbel echoed the same sentiments. As executive director of the Hawaii Food Industry Association, she said, people shouldn’t be concerned over lack of food.

“There’s no need to hoard food,” Zirbel said. “That is counter-productive to public health.”

However, Zirbel said stores are running out of toilet paper and cleaning supplies. Those items have been ordered and there will be an allotment provided to each store that sells such products.

Everyone around the table agreed Hawai‘i’s main economic driver, tourism, will take a significant hit. Christ Tatum, CEO of Hawai‘i Tourism Authority, said the industry is not only concerned about visitors, but the employees.

“They’re going to be looking for help and support and many of them live paycheck to paycheck,” Tatum said. “There has to be an option for them.”

Businesses and hotels have already implemented additional cleaning measures as well as providing hand sanitizers at their establishments.

The travel industry worldwide has already taken a significant hit. Operations at Hawaiian Airlines have already been impacted amid travel fears. Peter Ingram, president and CEO of the airline, said the impact of the spread of COVID-19 will be profound.

Hawaiian Airlines has been forced to reduce flights as they aren’t filling the planes. Ingram said they are evaluating further temporary flight reductions, including their North America routes.

“Cancelations were exceeding bookings by the end of February,” Ingram said. “It’s impossible to predict recovery or pace in which recovery begins.”

Mufi Hannemann, president and CEO of Hawai‘i Lodging and Tourism Association and former Honolulu mayor, said the number one thing is to continue doing what we can do to keep things business as usual.

“Knowing there will be gaps, we’d appreciate short-term or long-term relief so people in the (tourism) industry won’t feel like things are falling apart,” Hannemann said.

Hannemann is working on education for not only visitors, but locals about coronavirus prevention.

“We really believe we continue to be clean place, a safe place a sanitary place,” he said.

Hannemann suggested that they encourage people who want to travel to take a staycation.

“I’d like the community to gather and have this spirited campaign,” he said.

Gov. David Ige thanked everyone for being part of the conversation, saying this was an opportunity to work together and become self-reliant.

“We want to encourage everyone that keeping our community healthy is a team sport,” Ige said.

While many parts of the economy will take a hit, Ige said, the state is looking at continuing construction projects that are already in the pipeline.

The governor is also working with public schools and universities as well as county mayors in addressing upcoming community events.

On March 11, The World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak to be pandemic. Currently, the State of Hawai‘i only has two confirmed cases. The individuals are being monitored on O‘ahu.

The outbreak of the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) that began in Wuhan, China has been developing since December 2019. This outbreak now includes tens of thousands of infections in China and thousands of confirmed cases in a number of other countries, including hundreds in the United States.

Director of Hawai‘i Department of Health Bruce Anderson said there are two people under investigation in Hawaii — one from the Big Island and the other from Moloka‘i.

“They all have travel histories, which means there’s no community spread,” Anderson said.

Anderson continued to emphasize that people take personal responsibility for their health. If they feel sick, stay home from work, wash hands regularly.

He also suggested that inter-island travel for employees be limited.

The next committee meeting is scheduled for March 23, 2020.

Tiffany DeMasters
Tiffany DeMasters is a reporter for Big Island Now. Tiffany worked as the cops and courts reporter for West Hawaii Today from 2017 to 2019. She also contributed stories to Ke Ola Magazine and Honolulu Civil Beat. Tiffany is an award-winning journalist, receiving recognition from the Utah-Idaho-Spokane Associated Press and Society of Professional Journalists. Tiffany grew up on the Big Island and is passionate about telling the community’s stories.

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