Without a tourism rebound, half of Hawaii restaurants say they’ll be permanently closed by April

Updated: Dec. 24, 2020 at 4:45 AM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - If tourism doesn’t make a rebound early on in 2021, more than half of Hawaii restaurants say they will be forced to close permanently by April, a new survey finds.

The poll, from the University of Hawaii Public Policy Center, is a stark reminder of just how hard the restaurant industry has been hit in the pandemic ― and what the stakes are in wooing tourists back.

Restaurants and other small businesses in Hawaii have gotten some government aid, including from the federal CARES Act and the state’s Restaurant Card program for unemployed workers.

But most of those funds were spent quickly ― and it’s unclear when more help might be on the way.

In the meantime, restaurants are closing their doors just about every day.

According to the Hawaii Restaurant Association, at least 15% of the state’s 3,600 restaurants have closed down since the pandemic began.

“It’s scary. And for many of the mom and pops, it’s their life blood. It’s the life savings that they have put in for the last 30 years to 40 years,” said Victor Lim, the association’s government relations lead.

The group said it knows of 55 Oahu restaurants that have already closed for good.

The list includes big names, like Alan Wong’s, along with longtime favorites like Top of Waikiki and Like Like Drive-Inn, as well as small community takeouts like Ahi Assassins.

The University of Hawaii said restaurants are being burdened by quickly-changing government mandates on such things as how many people are allowed to dine in.

“You just never know when things are going to be shut down again, or the rules are gonna change, or everything else,” said Bryan Andaya, president and chief operating officer of L&L Franchises.

L&L Drive In has weathered most of the pandemic, but some of their nearly 70 franchises in Hawaii are starting to fall behind in rent.

“Some landlords have refused to talk about abatement or forgiveness,” said Andaya. “Instead, it’s all about ‘defer, defer, defer.’ But that just gets you into more debt.”

There are some positives for the industry.

The survey said 9 out of 10 restaurants took advantage of the federal Payroll Protection Program, and the state’s restaurant card program also brought customers and money back to the tables.

“They will all tell you that it was as win-win program, from the waiters and waitresses, to the kitchen help to the suppliers to the farmers, you name it,” said Lim, adding that without those programs twice as many restaurants would have shut down this year.

The report’s authors say without economic aid the restaurant industry in Hawaii could be decimated and “those members of our community with the skill and experience to resurrect the restaurant industry ... will be locked out of doing so due to lack of ability to gain capital to restart.”

Other highlights from the report:

  • Some 42% of restaurants on Oahu say they haven’t reopened for in-person dining even though they’re allowed to. Statewide, the figure is 39%.
  • Nearly half of restaurants say economic pressures linked to the COVID-19 outbreak have forced their employees to leave the state.
  • More than 1 in 4 restaurants reported being four or more months behind on “payables,” including rent, utilities, wages or supplies.

To see the full report, click here.

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