Return to normalcy: Lifting of interisland quarantine brings optimism for Hawaii businesses

  • Guests gather at the newly reopened Island Lava Java on Alii Drive Wednesday. (Tom Linder/West Hawaii Today)

For months, Hawaii residents have been eagerly awaiting the reopening of the kamaaina economy; with the mandatory 14-day quarantine for interisland travelers scheduled to be lifted on June 16, local businesses are preparing for a boost.

The demand is already being felt by Mokulele Airlines, which anticipates a broad group of travelers for interisland flights as locals look to make visits to neighbor islands.

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“I would be shocked if we didn’t have every plane sold out on June 16,” said Mokulele’s Chief Marketing Officer Keith Sisson.

Though Mokulele’s current schedule of 50 to 60 flights per day is about half of their pre-COVID total, they’ve maintained service moving essential workers, medical supplies and groceries to each of their nine locations throughout the shutdown. Sisson’s optimism regarding full flights stems from an increased interest following Gov. David Ige’s June 1 announcement lifting the interisland quarantine effective June 16.

“We’re seeing a good bit of uptick this week that we think is somewhat related to the interisland quarantine coming to an end…” said Sisson, adding that Mokulele’s smaller planes may be more attractive to travelers still worried about coronavirus. “We’re talking nine-seat planes. It’s an opportunity when you travel that you have less exposure than when you fly with 100 people. We think the ‘fly smaller, fly smarter’ that’s something that’s going to appeal to a lot of people that are concerned about their health and safety as they travel.”

On the heels of Ige’s announcement, Mokulele announced a merger with Makani Kai Airlines on Wednesday, combining Hawaii’s two largest commuter airlines.

Many local businesses once shuttered have now been allowed to open their doors this week, with guests returning to restaurants along Alii drive in Kailua Village — including Island Lava Java, the Fish Hopper and Humpy’s Big Island Alehouse, among others.

Other businesses, like Body Glove Ocean Adventures, are working hard in order to open soon. After hoping to restart operations on June 1, Body Glove required additional clearances from the Department of Land and Natural Resources for their cruises. That clearance finally came on Wednesday, when the DLNR announced relaxed restrictions on boating and water sports, paving the way for Body Glove to start back up.

“We are looking at to run three times a week: Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, so if people book we can funnel them into those slots,” said Body Glove Ocean Adventures president Maggie Brown. “Once flights are coming in inter-island, we’re going to start doing some type of a kamaaina special. That would be maybe June 15 or 16, possibly a soft opening once those flights come in and once we have the green flag.”

It’s not business as usual by any means; servers and retail workers are all wearing masks, and social distancing rules are in place. Body Glove is reducing the capacity of their boats by 50% and taking extra precautions to ensure safety.

“We’re putting up plexiglass, we’re giving out gear, we are asking that people do wear masks,” said Brown.

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Most importantly though, the lifted restrictions are bringing optimism throughout the business community in West Hawaii.

“It’s good to see customers back in the stores and restaurants. I’m encouraged by the entrepreneurial spirit of the Kona community,” said Kailua Village Business Improvement District executive director Debbie Baker. “Alii Drive is coming to life and returning to normalcy with shops and restaurants open… The lifting of the 14-day quarantine on interisland travel will bring new opportunities. As more and more travelers arrive, we are hopeful that the positive momentum will continue.”

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