Big Island Businesses on Board With Decision to Lift COVID Restrictions
Businesses across the Big Island welcomed this week’s news that most every COVID-19 restriction was lifting across the state.
For some of those establishments, it means a near return to once commonplace practices, like hosting large gatherings or events.
Other locales, however, said they’ll continue to operate with some of the COVID adjustments they put in place when the pandemic went into effect two years ago.
But all of the businesses that spoke to Big Island Now on Tuesday, March 1, said that regardless of how dramatically a return to normal affects their bottom lines, they agree with the state and county’s decisions to end most every COVID restriction.
“We’ve been able to make it though the pandemic as a business by sure determination and adaptation,” Karl Stasik, partner at Hale Hookah on Waianuenue Avenue, told Big Island Now via email. “Customer loyalty, quality, pricing, product uniqueness, and staying updated on the industry latest have all been factors that helped our business survive.”
Besides during the initial lockdown period at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, Stasik said Hale Hookah has not struggled with any of the restrictions.
“In fact, this pandemic has been a blessing in disguise for us,” he said. “Having to switch to more of a retail model has been far more beneficial for our bottom line. I wish we had switched our business model before COVID even began.”
Stasik said the lifting of all county restrictions will have almost no impact on the business internally, but he does think it will help Hale Hookah overall.
“This will hopefully attract more tourists to the Big Island,” he said. “I believe the policies of having proof of vaccinations to enter bars and restaurants on O‘ahu and Maui had a negative impact on the local economy.”
Stasik said Hale Hookah will continue its own restrictions despite the county lifting all of its emergency rules because the safety of employees and their families remains a top priority. That means masks and sanitizer for in-and-out retail purchases will continue to be necessary for those who visit the business.
While counties lifted their regulations on Monday, Gov. David Ige on Tuesday lifted the state’s Safe Travel Program, effective March 25, among other COVID restrictions. But the governor did leave in place in-door mask requirements for the time being.
“It only makes sense considering how many people I come in contact with face-to-face everyday,” Stasik said of maintaining mask rules inside his establishment. “We carefully watch the case counts per the (state) Department of Health to determine whether or not it will be safe and wise to seat people inside for hookah service.”
And the establishment will continue doing so to determine in-house hookah service.
“The pandemic isn’t over,” Stasik said.
Across the island, in Kailua-Kona, Wendy Laros, the executive director for the Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce, said the regulation easement means leeward businesses, like the chamber itself, can go back to hosting large events and after-hours social gatherings – happenings that used to be commonplace in the West Hawaiʻi community prior the pandemic.
“We truly appreciate the announcement made by Hawaiʻi County Mayor Mitch Roth that ended COVID-19 restrictions immediately,” she said. “Lifting the gathering restriction is especially helpful. This means we can now plan large events, group travel and other business with the certainty we need.”
Those businesses adjusted and adhered to the various guidelines and mandates as the state tried to navigate the unprecedented pandemic the last two years. Now, it appears things are headed back to normal, and businesses will be ready for that.
“All of this hard work has helped to get us where we are today,” Laros said.
She added that the governor’s decision to lift the Safe Travels Program was a business and tourism friendly move as well, and a decision that was driven by data in the dramatically reduced case counts of late.
“We thank the governor and everyone involved with this large project to keep our state safe while allowing Hawaiʻi to be open for business,” she said.
Andrew Hammond, owner of Hilo Axe Lounge on Keawe Street in downtown Hilo, said his business, which opened amid the pandemic, has struggled.
“People are scared,” Hammond told Big Island Now via Facebook Messenger. “We understand.”
He said the county lifting its COVID restrictions will only help the Axe Lounge.
“Just means that more people will come and people feel more comfortable,” he said. “We have over 3,000 square feet, so people can spread out.”
Hammond also expects the move will help business overall.
“It will definitely increase. We have seen the increase already and it’s only getting better,” he said.
Phillips Payson, executive director of the historic Palace Theater on Haile Street in downtown Hilo, said having capacity restrictions lifted is a big step forward for the theater’s operations — and just in time for its spring musical production of “Avenue Q,” which opens March 18.
“The theater was dark from March 13, 2020, until March of 2021,” Payson told Big Island Now via an email. “We slowly reopened with an abbreviated film schedule limited to a 100-person capacity. The past few months we have been limited to 50 percent capacity after submitting event requests with county officials.”
Restricted seating translates to less operational income available to the theater, he said. And without a steady and reliable box office income, the theater’s operations remain in a very delicate space.
“This has been a very difficult time to navigate without knowing what the future holds,” Payson said.
He said having the full house capacity restored to 500 seats will help cover the losses the Palace has faced during the past two years. It will also allow the theater to bring back popular events to the stage, including live concerts.
Like Hale Hookah, however, masks will still be required for entry to the Palace, and patrons are welcome to distance themselves within the auditorium. Payson said even though the capacity is no longer restricted, he imagines it might be a while before full-house crowds return to the theater.
He agreed with the county’s decision to lift its restrictions.
“I believe the decision was made at the appropriate time and in line with our declining case numbers,” Payson said. “Our community is in a much stronger place, and having a break from restrictions will be a much-needed relief.”
He added that despite taking a step toward returning to normal, that doesn’t mean the fight against COVID should let up.
“We should still act with personal responsibility,” Payson said. “If you feel sick, stay home.”
* Reporter Tom Hasslinger contributed to this report.