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Maui businesses in for a rough ride — again

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Hawaii businesses have been slammed over the past 18 months by the coronavirus lockdowns, capacity limits, curfews, mask mandates varying degrees of vaccine passports or regular COVID-19 testing, and above all the uncertainty.

On Maui, Pamela Tumpap, president of the Maui Chamber of Commerce, called their effects “devastating.”

Interviewed this past Monday on Keli’i Akina‘s  “Hawaii Together” program, Tumpap said that, “When we first started to lockdown [in March 2020], I remember the calls we would get. We had calls of desperation. We had calls of people who were angry and frustrated with government. They had a lot of questions. … Then there was possible reopening. In some industries, … they would gear up thinking reopening’s coming, … and then we wouldn’t reopen.”

Finally, earlier this year, restrictions did start to ease.

“What a difference March made this year where we saw a tremendous reopening and a rebound beyond all expectations,” she said. “Those who were more reliant on the visitor industry had a higher level of impact, and we were doing great, and people were starting to recover and starting to feel better — and now it’s almost like we’re back to that beginning.”

Tumpap said the latest blow is the Maui mayor’s mandate that customers of restaurants and other “high risk” businesses be vaccinated or show proof of negative testing.

“Some businesses feel like they’re being put in this policing state, which they don’t want to be in, and some people are saying it’s like us telling people you must get vaccinated. We’re trying to help them with messaging and other ways of explaining things. We’ve also heard some businesses say that we appreciate the government order that makes it clear for all of us.”

Watch the complete interview below. A complete transcript is provided.

9-13-21 Pamela Tumpap with Keli‘i Akina on “Hawaii Together”

Keli’i Akina: Aloha everyone, and welcome to “Hawaii Together” on the ThinkTech Hawaii broadcast network. 

I’m Keli’i Akina, president of the Grassroot Institute. Well, we are in the midst of another round of government regulations with regard to the COVID situation now. As we go forward with regulations rolling out on Oahu and other islands, we thought today we’d track what’s going on on the neighbor islands, and we’re here in studio with Pam Tumpap, the President of the Maui Chamber of Commerce. I’ll go to her in just a moment.

Everyone realizes that, currently, government is attempting to handle the surge in COVID cases throughout the Hawaiian Islands. Some people are pleased with what government is doing, some people are not pleased. We at the Grassroot Institute have expressed our support of the effort in general. However, we’ve raised specific concerns that citizens and businesses, in particular, want to be aware of.

The well-intentioned vaccine passports that are rolling out, to some extent, at both the state and county levels, will probably impose enormous burdens on Maui businesses and their customers, and that may not be the best approach to addressing the coronavirus problem anyway.

Mayor Michael Victorino is requiring a proof of vaccination for “high-risk businesses” such as restaurants, bars and gyms. Today, I want to talk directly with somebody who knows all about business on the island of Maui, who has been supportive of businesses, who knows businesses, who represents the businesses, because we can hear directly from her how businesses are reacting, what they think about. That’s Pamela Tumpap. She’s the president of the Maui Chamber of Commerce.

We’re going to discuss whether the mandates are practical, whether they’re supported by data, whether they’re narrowly tailored to achieve a specific goal, or whether they violate the freedoms of Maui’s people and may end up being economically unfeasible for Maui’s recovery from what’s taken place over the last year and a half or more.

Before I do that, I just want to say Pam has been a good friend throughout the years. She’s a valiant warrior for the sake of free-market enterprises throughout the islands, and especially on Maui, and I’m delighted to welcome her to the program. Pam, welcome to “Hawaii Together.” Aloha.

Pamela Tumpap: Aloha, Dr. Akina, and thank you so much for having me on your show today. It is a great honor and pleasure to be with you.

Akina: Well, you know all about businesses on the island of Maui. Tell me just a little bit about your background with the Maui Chamber of Commerce.

Tumpap: Well, this year, I’ve actually now been with the Maui Chamber of Commerce as its president for 15 years. Throughout my career, beginning in my 20s, I was a volunteer with the chamber. I never actually dreamed that I would work for the chamber until I got a call. It’s been quite a while. A couple of years after I started in 2006, we went through the Great Recession, and here we are again, with another major challenge to our island, our nation, our state, but a time when businesses are really hurting, and doing everything we can to keep them open is paramount.

Akina: Tell us a little bit about what the chamber does and who your membership is.

Tumpap: The Maui Chamber of Commerce, like chambers across not only the nation but the globe, are business associations. We are an organization that supports all industries across Maui County. We were once chartered to serve Maui County, but we believe that regions have distinct needs, and so we have neighbor island chambers on the island of Molokai and Lanai. We serve Maui island.

Our role is to support a healthy economic environment where businesses can not only survive, but thrive, to protect our community and our quality of life, and to make sure we have great opportunities for all of our citizens, while caring for this unique place in our island.

Akina: I told you I wanted to get an update on what’s going on in terms of business response to government mandates at this time. First, can we step back a little bit. We need to understand why Maui is unique, and that uniqueness is also a factor in predicting what’s going to happen in terms of government mandates. What makes the business on Maui unique and in particular, what’s the relationship to tourism?

Tumpap: Well, that is one of the key things, but let me step back even a little further. We are only the tri-island county in our state. We have the islands of Molokai and Lanai. We also have other uninhabited islands, or not-as-inhabited islands, on Kaho’olawe and a small island, Molokini. We’re very unique in that we are currently the most reliant island in the state of Hawaii on the visitor industry. It’s been a huge part of our development over time.

The industry was originally created to do the things we still talk about today. To create higher-paying jobs, to diversify the economy, which had always been very agricultural-based. To create more stem-type jobs, which it actually does.

When the pandemic hit — and we saw this in 2008, we see it from time to time, but particularly during this pandemic — we really understand the reliance. There’s different numbers that look at that from an economics standpoint — Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism and the state, and you hear all through the University of Hawaii — track different factors.

When you look at the human factor of the tremendous impact to our island, it’s really important to understand how reliant we are on it and how many jobs are created by it, because since our industry was so successful, we’ve also had a booming activity industry. We’ve also had a booming restaurant, a booming retail, a booming agricultural industry because so many of our producers sell to the visitor industry.

You start to see a domino effect when that industry, in particular, is impacted. The other thing that’s unique is we have one major hospital for all three of those islands. We have limited hospital capacity here on Maui. We don’t have multiple hospitals on Maui island. That also makes us unique.

When we look at things like mandates, as we’ve heard all of the mayors say across the state, and particularly Mayor Victorino has definitely championed that here at home. His decisions are looking at the capacity of our community and what’s happening at our hospital, and our ability to respond and make sure that we protect our residents and our guests.

Akina: Before we look forward as to what may happen in response to current vaccine mandates, give me a recap of what happened to the economy under the lockdowns that were instituted following the coronavirus breakout.

Tumpap: It was just devastating. When we first started to lockdown, I remember the calls we would get. We had calls of desperation. We had calls of people who were angry and frustrated with government. They had a lot of questions and, of course, as you well know, and our state well knows, we went from period to period. When we started it was going to be March 15 to April 15, and then there was possible reopening.

In some industries, for example, restaurant is a good one, they would gear up thinking reopening’s coming, so they would rebuy food that had deteriorated, gearing ready for the next market opening, and then we wouldn’t reopen on April 15th, and then it would move to May 15. Again, this wave of window regroup. Very early on, we did a micro business loan program funded by the County of Maui to help those very small businesses.

What we learned, too, was that retail, coming off of a tremendous 2019, had invested a lot of inventory, expecting what we all expected, a tremendous March 2020. They had sitting inventory. They had high rents. I always tell the story of a gentleman who had multiple stores, one of which was on Front Street, and his rent was $25,000 a month for a gallery.

When you start adding that up, March to April, April to May, May to June 15, you’re looking at $75,000 when he wasn’t even open, not to mention sitting inventory and other things. So we saw tremendous hardship. 

In the beginning, we’re not on the front line, we’re not like the doctors and the nurses, but we were dealing with a lot of emotions and people’s psychological state and trying to help them think through it, help them look at roadmaps, get expert advice and refer them to people who can also assist.

Then as reopening happened, and I always say, we call it “March Madness” in sports, but, boy, what a difference march made this year where we saw a tremendous reopening and a rebound beyond all expectations. That didn’t mean though, that a lot of our businesses, very dependent on the visitor industry, didn’t have huge debt. A lot of businesses had huge debt, whether they were related to the visitor industry or not, but depending on their level of impact. Not all businesses were impacted at the same level.

Those who were more reliant on the visitor industry had a higher level of impact and we were doing great and people were starting to recover and starting to feel better and now it’s almost like we’re back to that beginning.

Akina: As you described, Pam, there was an uptick in the economy after March of 2021, and now that we’ve come through summer, businesses are bracing for another downturn. Can you, first of all, catch us up. What’s the latest news on vaccine mandates? What have businesses been told recently is going to happen now?

Tumpap: Well, the latest news on the vaccine mandate is — and actually, what we’re doing is it is a vaccine mandate, it’s under the name Safer Outside Order. Before it was Safer at Home. Mayor Victorino is trying to recognize and assist with some industries that are considered high-profile industries or more at-risk industries, looking at ways to address spending more time outdoors than just Safer at Home, and that goes into effect on Wednesday. In two days, on Sept.g 15, that mandate goes into place.

Akina: What are the basic elements of that mandate?

Tumpap: The basic elements are going to be continuing to do a lot of things that we still do: social distancing, wearing your mask, but it’s also going to be continuing to space people apart so that we can have that social distancing. But in restaurants and in bars and in gyms, really, vaccinated people are going to have the keys to those businesses. If you’re fully vaccinated, you can show — this is the vaccine pass part of it — you’ll be able to show your vaccination card. You need to be able to have been fully vaccinated for 14 days to enter those premises, and if you’re unvaccinated, you wouldn’t be able to go into some of those places, or you’ll have to be able to be served outside or do takeout.

In the past when we’ve had an outdoor seating arrangement, it was very unclear exactly what was allowed in that. It was a huge problem. In this Safer Outside Order on the county website, mauicounty.gov, if you go down and you look at the new Sept. 15 order, you’ll be able to look at your business and go through the different mandates as they apply to you, but, again, they were really targeting — and you brought up a good point, Dr. Akina, earlier: the data. What is the data that’s being used to drive this?

According to the administration, and I sit on a county task force of business leaders, they are very carefully looking at the data and looking at where the clusters come from. The reason that gyms and bars and restaurants have a higher requirement is because the data shows that’s where more of the clusters are coming from.

Now, a while back in Maui, we also saw significant clusters at a church, and that church was actually named, which has been highly unusual in the process, and it was because, they said at that time, there was a public health requirement, and it was a safety issue that they were trying to address. The churches have a different level of immunity, if you will, given court ruling.

A lot of businesses are saying, “We don’t understand why we have these mandates when the churches aren’t seeing the same level,” but it is, again, the county is looking at the data and adjusting accordingly.

Akina: Pam, I’ve got a lot of questions for you, but let me just go back to this one. In general, you talked about the recent mandates, and specifically, you mentioned what some have called the vaccine passport, so to speak. You have some concerns about these mandates and so-called vaccine passports. What are those concerns?

Tumpap: Well, the concerns are, again, businesses are very concerned that they’re going to lose a lot of business, and I was actually watching a show the other day on television where a business said, “I’m already getting threatened by longstanding customers that if I adhere to this, they’re not just going to boycott me during this period, but they’ll boycott me in the future.”

A lot of business owners feel like this mandate — in essence, by requiring them to say you have to be fully vaccinated to enter my premises and do business with me, they’re feeling like their guests are feeling like it’s them telling their customers what they should do, and that’s very concerning to them, and many don’t feel like they want to do that with their customers or their employees.

The mandate is also requiring that they have to do vaccine checks, and so many of them are saying, “We’re not set up to do that. We have to have a new process.” You also have to have a written plan. So we’re working with our businesses to come up with a plan on how they’re going to work with their visitors and their guests, and how they’re going to work with their employees.

They also now are going to be required to do weekly testing of employees who are unvaccinated. There’s a lot of new processes in this order that are coming down and are solidified, much like what you folks are experiencing today, in fact, on Oahu.

Akina: That’s right.

Tumpap: So we’re seeing a lot of the same things. Some of them, of course — all businesses statewide and even nationally have been experiencing a worker shortage, so to institute this type of mandate, they realize this takes more staffing and more checkpoints.

Akina: That’s along the lines of what I wanted to ask you next really, was how prepared are businesses to implement these new restrictions? In addition to that, what kinds of reactions are you getting from businesses?

Tumpap: We’re hearing a lot of different things. Concern about cost, concern about where the money is going to come from to fund additional hours to do this type of work. Concern about the level of record-keeping. People feel it’s been vague and not necessarily well-explained. We’re working at the chamber to provide them with the sample, well-prepared.

I know our mayor was really trying to give businesses 10 days, to give businesses a little more lead time. I know that because I’ve been in meetings where it was discussed, but there’s also a process. They were trying to keep modifying the order to allow more things, and make it more of a Safer Outside than Safer at Home order, and working with the governor.

It came out a little later than some of the early discussions that were had, or we participated in, which would have given businesses more time. We’re still, again, a little under the gun. We are hearing some businesses already say, in the restaurant industry, “We’re going to move to takeout only. We’re not well equipped to do this. Our staff are not prepared. We’ve already got worker shortages,” and we’ve heard a couple of businesses say that.

Some businesses feel like they’re being put in this policing state, which they don’t want to be in, and some people are saying, “It’s like us telling people, ‘You must get vaccinated.’” So we’re trying to help them with messaging and other ways of explaining things. We’ve also heard some businesses say, “We appreciate the government order that makes it clear for all of us.”

Some people have said, “When we were asking folks to be more vaccinated and encouraging that, or that we require testing because some of our other employees wanted a level playing field within the operation, we were worried that our folks would go to other competitors who maybe didn’t have the same requirements.”

There is some support for a level playing field with this mandate, but overall, a lot of businesses are looking at how they do things differently. One of our businesses on the island was talking about even moving to a place where they didn’t have this level of mandate, like South Florida. 

It’s across the board, but in all things, people are still scrambling. We have been, along the way, as we were hearing things, about tours that needed to, again, continue to do mask-wearing and safety, and they were doing vaccine checks already, but to reduce capacity to 50%, so they were gearing up.

One of the things I will say, Dr. Akina, here in Maui, is our connection and relationship with the mayor and his administration has been one where we can keep providing solutions within the industry. For example, one of our tour guides said, “If I’ve got a 12-passenger van and I’m now limited to 50% capacity, what if I have a family of eight and they’re one family and they all live together, and they’re visitors? Can I get a family exemption, like we’ve done in some other areas with restaurants, where the family can sit together?”

Those are things where we’re working with the administration to say, if businesses can provide a higher level of safety, or they’re doing things at a different level, how do we recognize that, and is there a way that we can work with exemptions that address situations where, again, it’s like one family trying to do their activities together?

We’ve had good response to some of those things in the past. Those things are coming up now. We had a question this morning of a small retail/coffee shop that also sells some food over the counter. Are they a restaurant or are they a retail shop? How do we define between those two types of businesses? These are the kinds of things that we’re working with businesses and helping to navigate during this time.

Akina: Now, as you help parse the meaning of the regulations, and so forth, and then help businesses interpret what they can and cannot do, look back on what happened during the first round of lockdowns, and so forth. There was a lot of confusion, a lot of misunderstanding. Do you see things as being any different now? Is Maui better equipped to roll out enacting these restrictions, and having the cooperation of businesses and government together, or do you sense confusion, or even dissent?

Tumpap: I think, throughout, there’s always been some dissent that we can’t ignore. There’s always been some dissent. There’s always been businesses who say, “We don’t like it, but if this helps our community, we’ll do it.” That’s always been a huge challenge. Then to the level of support, “We’ll do it, but to what degree?” They expect government to understand that the resources aren’t there for another shutdown. I think that a lot of the hope is that, in doing this this time with this mandate and trying to keep open as much as possible without a strict shutdown, they’re wanting to work together.

Akina: Now, at the Maui Chamber of Commerce, I realize that you’re not a science organization, you’re not a public health organization, but you have to do your best to try to figure out what the condition is out there and what you really expect to be happening in the economy based upon what’s happening with the pandemic and government efforts to deal with it.

What do you see? Do you see the economy is struggling as a result of the current mandates? Do you see the current mandates being in line with what you think is going on in terms of the spread of coronavirus and its containment? What kind of impact, in other words, do you feel that these current restrictions are going to have on the economy and on businesses?

Tumpap: Thank you for asking. It’s definitely going to have an impact. We’re starting this right in the middle of a shoulder period, which is a natural downturn in our economy, and again, because we’re so heavily tied to the visitor industry, so that’s a significant challenge.

When it comes to the science and where we’re at with the pandemic, I look to other experts. I look to listen in to the state Department of Health. I listen to what’s being said at the state level, what Carl Bonham with UHERO was saying. It’s our economic research organization. We participate in a lot of different forums.

We know that Dr. Tan was on our “Business Matters” radio show a few weeks back, and we know that things were already down in August. Of course, we’ve also seen a lot of cancellations after the governor made his announcement in his message, asking visitors that this isn’t really a good time to come, and to consider not coming at this time, given what’s happening.

Of course, we’ve seen sustained spikes in our COVID numbers for quite some time. We’re seeing them fluctuate now. We’ve been tracking the numbers on a regular basis. We’re looking to see what’s now going to happen as a result of the Labor Day numbers. We know that this is going to be a very tough couple of months coming up. September and October are always months that are lower months for us.

As we increase mandates and restrictions, we know that means that businesses will be getting less revenue, just from the mandates alone, not to mention what’s happening in the shoulder months, and not to mention what’s happening with cancellations that we were already experiencing after the governor’s message.

Akina: It seems as though our internet connection has a glitch in it right now. We’ve been talking with Pam Tumpap, the President of the Maui Chamber of Commerce. It’s been a great nearly half an hour of conversation. We’re going to take off at this point, and we’ll get back in touch with Pam and continue chatting with her in our daily operations.

I want to say, I appreciate Pam very much, the Maui Chamber of Commerce. Thank you for your insights into what’s going on in Maui with regard to the current COVID restrictions, and best to you as you continue to counsel and work with businesses so that they can be as successful as possible. 

I’m Keli’i Akina, president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, and you’re watching “Hawaii Together” on the ThinkTech Hawaii broadcast network. Until next time, aloha.

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