Even as Oracle co-founder and Donald Trump backer Larry Ellison was closing a deal to partner with video platform TikTok in a lucrative arrangement championed by Trump himself, he was dealing with a crisis farther afield: an explosive COVID-19 outbreak on the island he’s owned the bulk of for eight years.
As the coronavirus swept the U.S. mainland, the tiny Hawaiian island of Lanai was virus free and, even as tourism cratered with Hawaii’s March lockdown, Lanai’s 3,000 residents escaped massive layoffs thanks to Ellison, who owns 98 percent of the idyllic hideaway.
But now reality is closing in on Ellison’s enclave as more than 100 people tested positive in the last two weeks of October, four have been airlifted out because Lanai’s only hospital lacks a critical care unit, and Ellison is scrambling to stop things from reaching critical mass.
“They’re going through what we went through in March and April,” Michael Shea, chief medical officer of Maui Memorial Medical Center, tells Al Jazeera.
Ellison, the seventh richest person in the world, already had massive real estate holdings when he bought Lanai from billionaire David Murdoch for $300 million in 2012. But the 140-square-mile island, 2,500 miles southwest of L.A., is different than his many mansions because thousands of people who live there rely on Ellison as a sort of benevolent landlord.
Lanai has no traffic lights and just one school, but it also has two top tier hotels—both Four Seasons—plus a luxury wellness resort, and Ellison owns it all. In fact, almost every employed person on the island is an Ellison employee, and that fact has not eluded him.
Compared to the contiguous 48, Lanai’s COVID-19 response has gone smoothly. Already, over 4,000 tests have been administered on an island of 3,000, thanks largely to kits donated by Ellison, while leaders at his company work with local officials to get the outbreak under control.
Likewise, Ellison and his three Lanai companies—the land and resource management company Pulama Lanai, Sensei Farms, and Four Seasons Lanai—didn’t wait for federal relief checks when Hawaii shuttered. Ellison told his workers that they would be paid through May. He ended up paying them through July.
The May cover of Lanai Today features the headline “A Grateful Community” above a photo of residents holding up a sign reading, “Thank you, Mr. Ellison!”
But keeping people sustained isn’t grace. Ellison has invested in remodeling the hotels, built his wellness resort and a hydroponic farm, and he owns much of the housing stock, not to mention Richard’s Market, Lanai’s main grocery store.
And while the pandemic has demonstrated to many residents the need to diversify the economy away from tourism-only, Ellison’s Pulama Lanai has resisted all efforts to come up with a new economic plan.
Butch Gima, a longtime Lanai resident and social worker, hopes another aspect of the pandemic will loosen Pulama’s grip on the island.
“If you’re going to have brick-and-mortar businesses, then yeah, Pulama will be involved because they own all 98 percent of the land,” he said. “But if you’re going to do web-based, internet-based types of businesses, then you don’t necessarily need brick-and-mortar establishments and you can work out of your home.”