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Hawaii provides its unemployed with a $500 restaurant credit

The subsidy can only be used in the state's restaurants. Gratuities and catering orders are covered.
Photograph: Shutterstock

Hawaii residents collecting unemployment assistance are finding an extra benefit in their mailboxes this week: A $500 credit for dining in the state’s restaurants.

The state is sending pre-loaded debit cards to an estimated 116,000 residents who filed for unemployment benefits at the start of the pandemic. Another mailing to 30,000 subsequent applicants is already planned. The program is intended to simultaneously help out-of-work locals, the state’s hard-pressed restaurant industry, and the army of suppliers and growers who support the Hawaiian foodservice industry.

Gov. David Ige has predicted that the unusual aid measure will stimulate $1.2 million in economic activity before it expires on Dec. 15.

The program is a collaboration between the state and several private-sector business groups, including the Hawaii Restaurant Association. The state is picking up the expected $75 million in costs.

The funds can be used for food and non-alcoholic beverages for onsite or off-premise consumption, but only for purchases from a restaurant. Purchases from supermarkets or convenience stores are not covered. A user of the card can pay out of their own pockets for beer, wine or cocktails.  The program extends to big catering orders, with patrons making up the difference on any charge exceeding $500.

A restaurant accepting the card automatically tacks on a 20% gratuity that comes out of the pre-loaded $500. Any restaurant that can accept a MasterCard debit charge can accept the card.

Consumers are automatically enrolled if they’re collecting unemployment insurance.

The Hawaii Restaurant Card is a standout example among a handful of efforts worldwide to aid the restaurant business by subsidizing visits.

The United Kingdom ran a program this summer that reimbursed diners for 50% of meals purchased from a restaurant between Monday and Thursday during August.

More recently, the Texas city of Stephenville sent a card preloaded with $25 for restaurant purchases to all 5,400 customers of the local water utility. About 3,200 of the cards were used early in the program, for an infusion of $80,000 into local eateries. The town recently voted to reprise the program.

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