It was in mid-March when local businesses started to revamp hours or temporarily close in compliance with Gov. Ralph Torres’ executive order 2020-4 declaring a public health emergency and then the Second Amended Executive Order 02-04 in the CNMI due to COVID-19 concerns. Businesses that pressed on were in the utilities, restaurant, food and grocery businesses—all considered essentials—and these establishments made the community function despite the many limitations.
Three months later and with the low number of COVID-19 cases in the CNMI, the Commonwealth is now on “Level Blue,” which is just a step away from the safest level, which is “Green.” The new level indicates fewer restrictions but with health and safety precautions still in place. That has allowed some businesses to adapt and do business in a new, and safe, way.
Tom Yum Restaurant launched an online service on Facebook that makes it easier for customers to order their take-out food. Just look for “Tom Yum Restaurant On-Line Service” and add it to your network. The page informs customers of current menu choices, prices, and “once one is ready to order, they can place their orders online or phone it in,” Tom Yum manager Natalia Gvan said.
They also now accept dine-in via reservations. “We want to be accessible to our customers and be of service to them even in these times. We continue to do business and we are here to serve the same quality food,” Gvan added.
The Shack Saipan has remained open since the start of the pandemic. The restaurant—akin to a highland bistro that specializes in French-style crepes and local cuisine—relies on the resiliency of the CNMI community. “…We have been through so much and we need to go back to our native mindset—one community made up of individuals that help one another,” said owner Glen Hunter.
Saipan Mango Six Cafe temporarily closed for a month in order to prevent the spread of the COVID-19. Owner Sun Moon Ahn said that he and his employees used those times researching how to solve the safety problems of customers and employees. “Noticing that the pandemic situation here on Saipan has been a little safer and controlled by the government, we considered the requests of many of our regular customers to open and that is why we are ready to serve once again,” he said.
Buffet-style restaurants went creative and did take-out “bentos” (to-go-meals) instead. Spicy Thai restaurant manager Jean Bracken said that they never closed as they many residents have become friends and family. “When tough times come, it is important to help the people around us, even if it is just serving food. After Super Typhoon Yutu hit, we had a lot of people stop by to eat and use our generator to charge their electronics. We understand that this global pandemic has caused quite a big economic downturn, so to help our customers we try to provide quality food at an affordable price,” Bracken added.
Another restaurant popular because of its buffet, Sura Saipan, did not close and has a line of bento meals, said general manager Michelle Park. “Whether it is a super typhoon or a pandemic, we are always here to serve our customers. …We currently have three bento menu options and the buffet-style is suspended for now.”
AC Pacific LLC president Alex B.K. Youn, who manages I Love Saipan stores and Star Sands Plaza, said that providing for the local community is always an important factor in their business portfolio. “…Our business is not making enough sales to meet the breakeven point, but we have the three stores open because we have to keep our employees on the payroll and, at the same time, give service to the community,” he said.
Green Flash Dive Inc. a company that offers hydrotastic test and scuba diving and swimming lessons, gets many of its business from local divers right now. “…We have always been a business focused on providing services to our local divers,” said owner Rhea McDoulett. “We have been fortunate to serve local divers, as well as provide services to dive shops that need to have their equipment serviced while there are no customers. …We have continued operations, except for a brief one-day pause when we understood there were no beaches open to the public,” she added.
Many businesses that used to cater mainly to tourists like bed-and-breakfast places have opened their doors to residents, encouraging them to experience “staycations” at rates lower than their usual rates for tourists. QQ Car Rental, which is known for renting colorful, convertible Camaros, Jeeps, and trucks to tourists, is now offering reduced rental rates to residents.
At Everest Kitchen, it temporarily closed last March soon after the CNMI reported its first case of COVID-19. The management had the confidence to open again after all their employees tested negative for COVID-19, according to owner Laxmi Shrestha.
“While closed, we received a lot of calls, emails, and messages from our customers to open the restaurant. As soon as all our staff were able to get the COVID-19 test that gave negative results, we felt confident to open the restaurant without any risk to our staff and customers,” she said.
A couple of new businesses opened despite the pandemic and its many restrictions. Friendly Plaza Supermarket owner and president James Burke opened the new plaza with a supermarket, laundromat, and car rental last June 2. “I did not see the current circumstances as a hindrance and we remain to provide a variety of popular products for the public with friendly service.”
On July 3, Paire’ Corner, a gourmet and deli place on Tinian, will formally open. Operations manager and chef Rhea Backe said that they will not only be serving delicious food but also providing jobs to the Tinian community. “With this COVID-19 pandemic, students transitioning to college are looking for a source of income to support their education. We are grateful to be the bridge to achieve their goal, whether for college or career.”
Many businesses like Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell, TanHoldings, Joeten, Great Harvest Bread Co., Monster Pizza, Puerto Rico Bento, and McDonald’s have remained open, with some of them making donations to the community, particularly to the COVID-19 front-liners.
Joe Ayuyu Jr., McDonald’s area supervisor for Guam and CNMI, said that he and his team are working hard to help McDonald’s resume normal operations. “We are trying to do whatever is right for us and the customers, to [create a] safe and sanitized environment. …The economy needs to open up because it is going to be hard for many people if we don’t, but we need to get there the right way.”