Tourism-dependent Hawaii hit by unemployment during pandemic squib

HONOLULU — Chef Lee Anne Wong had to make a choice: Keep her Hawaii restaurant employees working during the pandemic or close Koko Head Cafe in order to keep paying their health insurance for one more month.“Seeing as this is going to last longer, I'd rather close the business and make sure I can pay their insurance for the month of April," she said Thursday.She had to lay off 12 workers when she made her Honolulu restaurant takeout only."That was a big decision. We went from being fully operational, seating 300 to 400 a day, to going to takeout the next day," she said.Now, as the number of people in Hawaii who have tested positive for the coronavirus reached 106, Wong is preparing to shutter her business completely and lay off her staff.Applications for temporary unemployment assistance in Hawaii increased during the week ending on March 21 as the U.S. economy bears the weight of growing fears around the COVID-19 virus, according to a release Thursday from the U.S. Employment and Training Administration.For just this week through Wednesday, 67,071 initial claims were filed, said William Kunstman, spokesman for the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. That's 10.8% of Hawaii's eligible pool of workers.Wong fears that unemployment will be especially acute on Maui, where she manages the restaurant at the Pioneer Inn in Lahaina, which was closing Thursday.“Maui is squarely dependent on tourist traffic,” she said. “I'm in Lahaina right now and it's empty.”After eateries started downsizing and switching to takeout only, Gov. David Ige announced an order requiring travellers landing in Hawaii — starting Thursday — to quarantine in hotel rooms or homes for 14 days to fight the spread of the coronavirus.But even before that, Hawaii's tourism-dependent economy started suffering.Nely Reinante was laid off from her job as a housekeeper at the Hilton Hawaiian Village resort in Waikiki on March 11.For the first time since she started working at the resort three years ago, she filed for unemployment.“I just keep on worrying that we might get infected and we are also worried we won't have food to set on the table for our kids,” she said.Because of glitches with the online site for filing a claim, she's anxious about when she'll see any money.“I just hold my feelings. I try not to panic. I try not to cry,” she said. “Unemployment is the ... only hope we have right now.”Jennifer Sinco Kelleher, The Associated Press
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