Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

KAILUA-KONA, Hawai'i – On Aug. 23, Democratic Gov. David Ige asked people to delay non-essential travel to and from Hawai'i until the end of October. It’s a blow to businesses.

For James Bond, CEO of Eaden Enterprises, it was the last straw. After months of making too little money to cover expenses, he’s closing his jewelry store in Kailua-Kona, on the west coast of Hawai'i island (also known as the Big Island).

Half off jewelry and handbag, going out of business sale sign for Eaden Enterprises, at the Kona Inn Shopping Village on Ali'i Drive in Kailua-Kona on Hawai'i Island (also known as the Big Island). Sept. 21, 2021. (Photo by Laurence A. Goldin)

Normally some 90 percent of the customers at his store are tourists. Before the pandemic, business was good. “We were slammed,” Bond said.

His shop is in a high-rent, high-traffic area – in the Kona Inn Shopping Village. People come to Ali’i Drive to tour historic sites and eat at waterfront restaurants. Dozens of shops, art galleries, an outdoor market and a beachfront walkway are a big draw.

Bond had negotiated with his landlord to get his rent reduced. That discount ended the first of September. So his rent went up just a few days after Ige’s announcement. Bond said the governor lifted restrictions too soon, then over-reacted.

“The governor, in my opinion ... woke up too late and three months later decided to tell the whole world not to come to Hawai'i –– at the same time my rent went back to the regular payments, which I can't afford.”

Bond said he’s closing effective Oct. 1.

James Bond, of EAD Enterprises, LLC, in his jewelry store at the Kona Inn Shopping Village on Ali'i Drive, Kailua-Kona, Hawai'i. Bond is going out of business after the governor asked visitors to delay visits until the end of October. Sept. 21, 2021  (still from video by Laurence A. Goldin).

Just a few doors away, Thomas Pua, Native Hawaiian, owns "Pua’s Passion," which carries Hawaiian-themed items including jewelry, clothing, woven bags, pillows, and wallets.

He said business has been slow. “We have our good days and bad days. There's still tourists coming in, but not as much as we hoped for.”

Pua said, “I opened literally right before COVID, maybe a month before COVID.” That month is the only good one he’s had so far.

When COVID hit, “it was full-on shutdown, no business in or out. Nothing. Just nothing,” Pua said.

He closed the shop and went on unemployment. He kept up with the shop’s rent payments and did some restocking. That went on for six months.

He reopened a year ago. For social distancing, he can allow only four people in his shop at a time, including himself. Business had been slow but growing.

After the governor’s announcement, “it's slowed down again.”

Still, he has a word of encouragement to all other small business owners.

“Hang in there. It'll get better. It always gets worse before it gets better. And if our ancestors could do it in the twenties (1900s influenza pandemic), then we can definitely do (what it takes) now a hundred years later.”

Thomas Pua, Native Hawai'ian, owner of Pua's Passion, a Hawaiian-themed gift shop with jewelry, clothing, pillows, woven bags, and more located in the Kona Shopping Village Inn, on Ali'i Drive in Kailua-Kona, on the Big Island (Hawai'i). Sept. 21, 2021 (Photo by Joaqlin Estus, National Correspondent, Indian Country Today).

Lokahi Cuban, Native Hawaiian, is a co-owner of “Hawai'i’s Only by Chef Kale,'' with food trucks in two locations on O’ahu, the island that is home to Honolulu, and the state’s most visited island.

Speaking in an interview for the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development, Cuban said the drop in tourism numbers had less of an impact than he expected – thanks to local support in the small town of Kohuku, on Oahu’s North Shore.

“We employ a few people from the community,” Cuban said. “We have community members that come out here. We have live music on the weekends. We offer various specials to the kamaʻāina (locals) here too, not only if you're from Kohuku, but if you're from anywhere on this island, throughout the state, that you live here, we offer various specials just to kind of say thank you to them.”

The food truck also offers discounts to students after school, “It's just to try and make everybody feel it, feel at home as much as they at Kohuku made us feel at home when we come out here,” Cuban said.

His menu deserves mention as another factor in his success. The area is known for its garlic shrimp so the food truck has its own version of that.

“We also have a seafood boil with clams, Portuguese sausage, shrimp, and corn, sweet corn; poke (seasoned raw fish) bowl, spicy poke bowl, lobster dog (like a corn dog but with lobster),” Cuban said. They also buy fruit – guava and lilikoi – from local gardeners for their sauces.

“I've been in the Hawaiian movement since I was a little kid from going to a Hawaiian charter school. So I've been around various different, I guess you could say political things in Hawai'i where us as Native Hawaiians face against big corporations or even our own government. So Kahuku (a community known for its activism), they really said, ‘Hey, Lokahi, hey, thank you guys for coming out.’”

Lokahi Cuban, Native Hawaiian, co-owns two food trucks on O'ahu, the Hawai'ian island that gets the most tourists. He said his success, however, is thanks to local customers and support. (Screenshot of video by the National Center for Native American Enterprise Development, Sept. 2021)

Before COVID, tourism in Hawai'i was booming. In 2019, some 10.4 million visitors put $17.64 billion into the economy and accounted for 21 percent of jobs. Much of that was for accommodations and food but spending on shopping added up to $2,348 per visitor. 2019 was also the eighth consecutive year of record growth in visitor numbers and expenditures in Hawai`i.

Despite the pandemic, the future of small businesses in Hawai'i is bright, according to Michelle Kauhane, Native Hawaiian, senior vice president for Community Grants and Initiatives for the Hawai'i Community Foundation. The foundation provides grants to make Hawai'i a better place to live. At the American Indian enterprise webinar, Kauhane said Native Hawiian businesses had been on the upswing before the pandemic.

“In terms of Native businesses, while we make up about 20 percent of the state's population, our Native people represent less than 10 percent of our small businesses. However, small businesses in general, I think have had opportunities to thrive here in the islands largely dependent on tourism.”

Policy changes would help, said Kauhane. “I think that during COVID, we've seen a huge downturn with many of our small businesses that have had to shut their doors,” Kuahane said. “Lots of the requirements that said you had to have a storefront to get support for that business really hurt some of our smaller Native crafters and folks who really worked out of their home or specific fairs throughout the year that were more cultural. They probably had the hardest impact.”

People walking along Ali'i Drive, Kailua-Kona, Big Island, Hawai'i, Sept. 21, 2021 (Still from video by Laurence A. Goldin)

When the state closed its doors in March 2020 to prevent the spread of COVID, the number of visitors to Hawai'i dropped to 2.7 million, a nearly 74 percent decline.

In early 2021, masks, stay-at-home mandates and other prevention measures were working and the vaccine was being rolled out. Disease rates went down. In February, the 7-day average was 43 new cases per day. The state began lifting restrictions.

The easing came just as the highly contagious Delta variant was getting going. By mid-August, the 7-day new case average hit 700. Hospitals were operating at full capacity. That’s when the governor asked for people to undertake only essential travel.

The state’s COVID surge has dropped from its peak of 1,100 cases in late August to a 7-day average of 465 on Sept. 20.

Compared to other states, Hawai'i is doing well. It’s among the lowest third for per capita disease rates. The U.S. daily average is 40 COVID cases per 100,000 people, and .62 deaths per 100,000. Hawai'i has 34 daily cases per 100,000 and .54 deaths per 100,000. As for vaccination rates, Hawai'i is 66.8 percent fully vaccinated, compared to the United States as a whole, which is 55 percent fully vaccinated.

As for how COVID is being spread in Hawaii, the trend has been 74 percent of cases are linked to community-associated risk factors, 5 percent to resident travel, 20 percent unknown, and 1 percent to non-resident travel.

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