Customers fill tables Friday night at Paia Fish Market in Paia. Maui retailers and restaurants said they saw a noticeable spike in sales after the reopening of trans-Pacific travel Oct. 15. — The Maui News / KEHAULANI CERIZO photo

KAHULUI — Maui retailers and restaurants, among the sectors hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, reported an almost immediate bump in sales after the state offered the pre-travel testing option to trans-Pacific travelers about two weeks ago.

“We noticed on the (Oct.) 16th it just doubled in sales,” Malia Stewart, manager at Paia Fish Market’s flagship restaurant on the north shore, said Friday. “It’s been pretty consistent since then.”

Many small businesses have mixed feelings, though, about having to adapt to more traffic coupled with stringent state Department of Health COVID-19 measures required to stay open. Funding to be compliant and enforcing social distancing, mask-wearing and sanitizing add layers of complexity to owning and operating a business.

“We’ve definitely seen an increase in sales — maybe 10 to 20 percent more,” Melodee Ajifu, supervisor of Baked On Maui, a family-owned and operated bakery in Haiku, said Friday. “We love the business, but we are trying to keep everyone safe.

“We have a love-hate relationship with the crowds.”

Darren Jones, general manager and owner of Alive & Well Natural Health Foods store and Broth cafe, stands at the checkout register Friday. Jones said the reopening to tourism, as well as more residents being out and about, have contributed to higher sales recently at the Kahului store. He estimated a 20 percent increase in sales on some days. — The Maui News / KEHAULANI CERIZO photo

On Oct. 15, Hawaii launched the trans-Pacific pre-travel testing program, a way to bypass the 14-day mandatory quarantine with a negative COVID-19 test taken 72 hours from departure, in an effort to restart the state’s tourism-reliant economy. However, state leaders and economists have said they expect tourism to have a slow return.

Over the two-week span following the start of the pre-travel testing program, 18,038 trans-Pacific arrivals have come to Kahului Airport, according to Hawaii Tourism Authority data.

The first week of reopening saw 10,739 trans-Pacific arrivals to Maui. By the second week, arrivals had dropped about 20 percent to 8,538 (counts include returning residents). Last October, Maui saw 240,135 visitors, including international travelers, according to HTA.

Despite safety and over-crowding concerns that come with reopening the state, small businesses weathering the pandemic said the spike in sales is much needed.

“We’re stoked that people are coming back,” Kim Ball, owner of Hi-Tech Surf Sports in Paia, Kahului and Kihei and Shapers Maui at Queen Ka’ahumanu Center, said Friday.

In fact, sales were so good that it may be a record October for the Paia location, Ball said. The Paia store had a 20 to 30 percent sales increase since the state reopened Oct. 15.

The Kihei store had an initial spike for four or five days then settled back to days before the pre-travel program. But Ball said he’s optimistic the location will pick up some business with nearby surf schools.

His main store in Kahului has been bolstered throughout the pandemic by a strong local base.

Ball’s Shapers Maui spot, though, has gotten slower since the trans-Pacific travel reopening. He added that the mall location still had some “good local traffic.”

“We’re very fortunate; we are very blessed. We haven’t laid off anyone,” Ball said. “We’ve been in business 38 years on Maui, and we wouldn’t have had the success we’ve had without our local base.”

Staying open during a pandemic, where enforcing safety measures require extra time and money, is proving to be its own challenge for many businesses.

“It’s definitely positive (to reopen), but it’s also kind of a scary thing too,” Darren Jones, general manager and owner of Alive & Well Natural Health Foods store and Broth cafe in Kahului, said Friday. “We are reiterating our policies for cleanliness and all the things we do to stay healthy. We’ve kept the dining room closed. It was too busy.

People were all over, and we couldn’t clean the tables and chairs fast enough.

“With the Health Department possibly coming down us, it’s just not worth the extra business.”

Jones said he noticed “right away” that the store was busier after the trans-Pacific travel program started. He estimated a 20 percent increase in sales on some days.

Despite working longer hours and having to lay off about six employees, he is optimistic about the future for Alive & Well.

“The product mix we have seems to appeal to people trying to stay healthy,” he said. “Our idea is taking care of the body is the best thing you can do for the immune system.”

Stewart, too, said she has mixed feelings about the return of crowds and reopening the state. But from a business perspective, she is happy to be open and surviving.

Paia Fish Market’s restaurants in Kihei and Lahaina struggled more than the Paia location during pandemic shutdowns, she said. Since Oct. 15, those locations have “probably doubled to tripled in sales.”

University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization’s most recent report said the pandemic has had a significant negative impact on industries associated with tourism, including transportation, retail and food service. Plus, Neighbor Island economies that are more dependent on visitors have been pummeled by pandemic shutdowns.

Gov. David Ige mandated a 14-day self-quarantine for all trans-Pacific passengers arriving in Hawaii effective March 26 to curb the virus spread, leading to sudden and severe drops in air travel.

With the launch of the pre-arrival testing program statewide, 10,552 out of the 111,204 trans-Pacific and interisland passengers screened through the Safe Travels Hawaii program from Oct. 15 to Thursday have had to quarantine, according to Caroline Julian-Freitas, spokeswoman for the state Office of Enterprise Technology Services.

Factors leading to quarantine include not taking a test before arriving, taking the wrong test, testing from a nontrusted partner or problems uploading the results to the Safe Travels Hawaii application.

About 3,800 passengers have gotten a notice that tests needed to be verified manually since the Hawaii Safe Travels screening process started.

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at [email protected]


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