Within months of the COVID-19 pandemic reaching Guam shores in March, nearly 30,000 people lost their jobs permanently or temporarily.

Many had their work hours cut to a point where they also qualified to receive federal unemployment assistance.

As revenues dried up, private sector employers had no choice but to let go of employees and suspend their operations until economic conditions improve.

Tumon, the center of tourist activity, turned into a ghost town almost overnight as travel restrictions upended the tourism industry.

Most airlines suspended flights to and from Guam.

Every hour, more than $200,000 in tourism revenue is lost, according to Gerry Perez, vice president of the Guam Visitors Bureau.

Tourism generated some $2.5 billion in annual revenue and some $260 million in local taxes.

More than 21,000 jobs rely on the industry, from hotel workers to taxi drivers, scuba operators and restaurant servers.

From a record-breaking 1.6 million visitor arrivals in fiscal 2019, Guam saw only 756,385 visitors or a 53% drop in fiscal 2020. Calendar year-to-date data shows a 98% plunge in arrivals.

Nine months on, most of the businesses in Tumon are still closed. Some will not reopen.

The impact is felt well beyond the tourist district. Chuck E. Cheese's, Forever 21 and Tony Roma's in Hagåtña folded. And so did some local restaurants including Kitchen Lingo in Hagåtña and Kådu in Mangilao.

In October, Tango Theatres confirmed it was permanently closing its movie theaters at the Agana Shopping Center.

With two lockdowns and prolonged social gathering restrictions, local holidays and festivals that usually give an extra boost to businesses were canceled or confined to virtual settings.

Most businesses are only operating at 25% to 50% capacity, while others such as bars are still not allowed to reopen.

ASC Trust Chairman David John described it well when he said 2020 is "the year from hell."

Economists and other finance experts, however, said Guam's economy was saved from total destruction by some $2.6 billion in federal pandemic relief and military spending in fiscal 2020.

That's up from $1.9 billion in federal and military spending in fiscal 2019, significantly offsetting Guam's lost tourism revenue, according to government economist Gary Hiles.

The federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation and Lost Wages Assistance worth more than $500 million, saved most of the nearly 30,000 pandemic-displaced workers from hunger, homelessness and deeper financial troubles.

Nearly every sector of the Guam community, from schools to hospitals, the airport, law enforcement and small businesses, received direct federal help, thanks to the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act. 

Construction projects on the military bases and off have been in full swing in the midst of the pandemic.

As local doctors, nurses, other front-line workers and the most vulnerable population are now getting COVID-19 vaccines, public and private sector leaders see light at the end of the tunnel.

Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero is eyeing a tourism reopening within the January to March 2021 window, although tourism officials don't expect significant arrivals until late into 2021.

The pandemic's ruinous impact on tourism also gave new urgency to the idea of diversifying the local economy, including luring investors from Hong Kong and other Asian countries to bring their operations to Guam.

It also opened new job niches and new business opportunities.

"I think 2021 is really a good time to like start a new business," Siska Hutapea, president of Cornerstone Valuation, told an economic forecast virtual forum recently. "There's opportunity to be had in 2021."

Haidee Eugenio Gilbert

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