Boat tours struggle to reopen under new guidance, offering kama’aina rates

Coronavirus

Commercial and recreational boating operations were given the green light to reopen on Wednesday, June 3, but it’s been a struggle for tour companies with tourism at a stand-still.

With no time to prepare, commercial tour operators said they were surprised to hear they could reopen so soon.

“We found out we could reopen on the news,” said Haleiwa Shark Tours owner Kala Alexander. “I didn’t get an email or anything, so we didn’t have time to prepare. I’m not prepared. Haleiwa Shark Tours will be open on June 11 to service our service men and women and local people.”

He said it’s been tough running a business with no income coming in.

“It has been hard, we’re not making any money, and we’re refunding people but obviously safety is number one, you don’t want the virus to spread,” he said.

He said until the visitor quarantine is lifted, he’ll be providing kamaaina rates for military and residents.

We have really good prices for service men and women and locals,” he said.

“We only take six people out anyways and the cap is at eight, we always sanitize our gear anyway, and we’ll have hand sanitizer, and we use a bleach solution that kills bacteria and viruses,” Alexander said.

Haleiwa Shark Tours is fully owned and operated by Native Hawaiians and guests are also treated to an educational experience.

Another North Shore operator, Kevin Wilson, had finally finished working on his boat, Ocean Outfitters Hawaii. He had all his permits finalized and was ready to open for business just as everything shut down.

“All we can do is wait, that’s all we can do. At least we can get it up and going for the people, the Hawaiians, families, and military too. We want to do a bunch of discounts for them too,” Wilson said.

The new company is utilizing social media as a way for people to book tours.

Wilson said his vessel will be the fastest on the North Shore and can seat up to 20 people, but under the new guidance by the Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation, only ten passengers are allowed on any vessel.

Under the new guidance:

Only 10 people are allowed on a vessel at a time, including passengers and crew. The number can exceed 10 if everyone is from the same household.

From DLNR website:

1) If possible, social distancing of at least six (6) feet shall be maintained between individuals; if not possible, crewmembers and patrons must maintain as much social distancing as allowed on the vessel or contrivance, depending on its size and configuration. Passengers and crewmembers from the same household are not required to social distance from each other.

  • Any food served must be in individually packaged servings; buffets shall be prohibited. Passengers may bring their own food and drinks onboard and keep it separate from the food and drink supplied by the host vessel.
  • Passengers and crewmembers should not pass or share fishing rods or equipment, to the maximum extent possible.
  • Signage shall be posted at the company’s place of business and on all company vessels to notify the public that any person with symptoms consistent with COVID-19 may not enter the company’s vessel(s).

b. Hygiene Protocols:

  1. Crewmembers shall provide handwashing capability or sanitizer on the vessel.
  2. Frequent handwashing by employees, and an adequate supply of soap, disinfectant, hand sanitizer, and paper towels must be available.
  3. Crewmembers and staff shall provide touch-point sanitization (e.g., workstations, equipment, screens, doorknobs, restrooms) at least hourly.

c. Staffing:

  1. Vessel captains shall ensure crewmembers are trained in basic hygiene practices, such as frequent and thorough hand washing, respiratory etiquette (e.g., covering coughs and sneezes), and discourage crewmembers or passengers from using others’ personal property, work tools, and equipment.
  2. Vessel captains shall conduct pre-shift staff screening and maintain staff screening logs.
  3. No crewmembers displaying symptoms of COVID-19 may provide services to customers. Symptomatic or ill employees may not report to work.
  4. No crewmember may report to the work site within 72 hours of exhibiting a fever.
  5. The company shall establish a plan for employees getting ill and a return-to-work plan following CDC guidance

d. Cleaning and Disinfecting:

  1. Before passengers may enter a vessel for a commercial trip, staff must clean and disinfect the vessel in compliance with CDC protocols. Staff shall clean and disinfect company vessels in compliance with CDC protocols at least once between each commercial trip.
  2. When an active employee is identified as being COVID-19 positive by testing, CDC cleaning and disinfecting must be performed as soon after the confirmation of a positive test as practical.

“There doesn’t appear to have been any consideration for the commercial charter fleet in Hawaii with these regulations,” said Jim Coon, Ocean Tourism Coalition president.

He said bigger operations on neighbor islands average about 49 passengers.

“The current guidelines for us to operate are just not functional for us, there’s the 10-person max number of people on the boat and right there is a non-starter,” he explained.

He said the state did take away fees during the shutdown.

“Because they took away our ability to operate, they also took away the doubling of the fee which we were thankful for,” he said. “We would like to keep that suspended until we’re able to operate because to say you can operate now when in fact, we can’t would be disingenuous in my opinion.”

He said the key factor is knowing when tourism will resume.

“Here’s what we can do now, we can at least change the protocols so they would work for us when we do open,” he said.

“These are large vessels, they’re as large as many of the restaurants,” Coon said.

He said a 65-foot by 35-foot catamaran is about 1,950 square feet.

“We would like to have the opportunity to pick the time that we reinitiate our commercial permit,” he said. “Each company is going to be different as to when we are able to operate, then it’s fair we pay a commercial fee. Prior to that, it’s just making it so much harder for us.”

He said boat operators need to have passenger requirements that are “realistic” for vessels. “Without a certain number of passengers, economically, we cannot operate.”

He said boats who offer food or dinner cruises also need to have food requirements be more lenient.

“We need to have food requirements more like a restaurant would,” he said.

He said he’d like to know when tourism will reopen so they can prepare ahead of time.

“Whenever it’s going to be, even if it’s bad news, tell us when it’s likely we’re going to have mainland America travelers come to Hawaii,” he said. “When we know that, then we can start to give our people hope.”

On Maui, the Pacific Whale Foundation is one of the island’s oldest tour companies with several boats that can hold up to 149 passengers.

“Life has been hectic,” said Blake Moore, director of commercial operations for Pacific Whale and Eco Adventures. “The sudden shut down of a 40-year-old operation isn’t something that happens quickly.”

He said they were expecting a couple weeks’ notice to prepare the vessels and crew members for reopening.

“It was, ‘your permits are open, you can run with 10 people,’ and our vessels range from small to large, so these boats hold 149 passengers. Even though it was a fast message that came to us, it’s not helping us very much because at 10 folks, there’s not a lot you can do that on large commercial vessels,” Moore said.

He said reopening isn’t feasible.

“The Coast Guard provides a variety of different metrics to determine the number of passengers on a vessel,” he said. “For some operators, it’s going to have very little impact on them.”

He said one of the vessels is over 2,000 square feet.

“Even at the CDC guidelines of 26 square-feet per individual, assuming no one on the boat is with anyone from their household, the boat will hold 55 people,” he explained.

“We watched water parks on Oahu open up with 3,000 people, we see people go to Target and Safeway, or to a restaurant and everyone seems to be operating under a general guideline of six-feet social distancing, or limiting the number of people allowed in an establishment, and we’re just not seeing that in our industry yet,” Moore said.

He said operating any vessel that holds more than six people is “detrimental” to their business.

“When these permits come back online, we’re required to pay the full fees for the permits,” he explained.

“Right now, we’ve had that forgiven, but now that we’re allowed to run, we have to pay the full amount for our 149 passenger permits with 10 people allowed and it’s actually putting us deeper in a financial hole,” Moore said.

He said he hopes new guidelines can be released that are similar to restaurants re-opening across the state.

His company had to lay off 100 staff members just last week.

“We’re already seeing people that are telling us, ‘Look I’m running out of money, I have to go back to the mainland where I have family there to live with,” explained Coon. “We’re already seeing an out-migration of our valued staff; all our companies are and that’s another great concern in re-opening.”

Moore also said boat operators have been doing some form of contact tracing even before COVID-19.

“We’ve always been taking reservations, we’ve had phone numbers, e-mail addresses, we know who’s in the establishment with other people, it’s been in place,” he explained.

“We’ve put additional measures in place such as the online waivers, so when people check in for tours, there’s no need for face-to-face interaction with our guests. I understand that might not be possible for the smaller operators because it has taken a cost for us to pay for and develop the software,” he said.

The company is offering kamaaina deals for the time being and has kicked-off their essential employee week.

With a slow re-opening, the company has started doing temperature checks on crew members and guests before boarding the vessel.  

“We’d love to take out many more of our essential workers and provide them with the much-needed break they need after helping us get our islands reopened,” Moore said.

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