Island tour

CARES Act money is keeping this major island travel company afloat

The pandemic has sunk businesses by land, air and sea.

For Jeff Leicher, owner and managing partner of Jack’s Diving Locker, a snorkeling, scuba diving and tourism business in Kailua-Kona on the Big Island whose business has been thriving since 1981 in the latter category, that meant that he had to get creative to keep his operation afloat during the precipitated COVID-19 shutdown.

With quarantines in place and tourism to the islands at catastrophic levels, he and his wife Teri knew their options were limited.

Limited, of course, but that does not mean non-existent.

“I wasn’t sure the whole time if we were going to survive it,” Leicher said. “But I knew we weren’t going to go down without a fight.”

This week, the island of Hawaii, along with the rest of the state, reopened to tourism by allowing trans-Pacific travelers to visit without having to quarantine, provided they can produce a COVID-19 test. negative made within 72 hours of departure. The Big Island also requires a second test taken – free of charge – at the airport on arrival.

With this door open, Leicher can spy on the end of what has been a rocky road.

“I can see the light,” he said with a sigh of relief.

Jeff Leicher, owner of Jack’s Diving Locker, has partnered with local nonprofits and a Hawaii County CARES grant to help organize a slew of ocean and scuba lessons for Big’s keiki. Island. Courtesy of Jack’s Diving Locker

To get here from there, the Leichers relied on what has always been a supportive community – their own.

In partnership with a pair of local nonprofits, the Malama Kai Foundation and the Nakoa Foundation, they applied for and received a grant through Hawaii County’s CARES Act to provide scholarships for keiki in Big Island to participate in snorkeling, scuba diving and traditional Hawaiian sailing camps. no charge for families.

Jack’s usually offered the camps during summer break when students had plenty of free time. But never on the scale of what they were able to offer with the grant when the pandemic closed classrooms for far longer than a typical seasonal break.

So far, around 120 children have participated in the various camps, which provide students with plenty of time at sea, the opportunity to earn scuba certification and also teach the importance of conservation.

Instruction on local sea life and Hawaiian language and culture is included.

They feed the children two meals a day and allow them access to computers if they need to participate in online learning – it is currently the school year, after all.

“Oh man, delighted,” Leicher said of the reaction from the kids, some of whom took five-week classes. “Parents are just in tears of gratitude.”

This is because the abundance of activities also benefited mom and dad, as they could return to work and not have to worry about child care.

Another creative effort the company made during the shutdown, it used money from its Payroll Protection Program to pay its staff to inspect and repair every boat mooring in Western Hawaii. These state-run buoys allow commercial and recreational boaters to moor at permanent moorings at dive sites without having to drop anchor on the delicate coral reefs of Western Hawaii.

During the pandemic, Jack’s Diving Locker staff took it upon themselves to restore all state-run docking sites in West Hawaii. Courtesy of Jack’s Diving Locker

If there’s a downside, it’s that Jack’s didn’t get enough money to fund as many camps as needed to meet demand. Places have quickly reached capacity – there is currently a waiting list – and camps will likely end in November, although if demand for paid attendance allows the program to continue, it will.

But with travel restrictions looking to ease on Thursday, Leicher said he was grateful for the community support that has helped his team navigate the precarious economic seas.

“That’s all we had,” he says of the kama’aina market. “And they really supported us.”

Now softer waters appear ahead. Jack’s had a “record year” before COVID-19, but thanks to the programs, it was able to retain 36 of its 49 employees during the ordeal. Today they have nearly 50 off-island bookings through the end of the month.

“We don’t give up easily,” Leicher said.