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Isle COVID-19 warnings spur cancellations

Officials discourage travel and large gatherings as cases rise

Wedding planners and other local businesses offering activities, events and tours are seeing more cancellations as state and county officials urge visitors not to come and residents to avoid large gatherings amid a spike in COVID-19 cases. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Maui businesses have already begun to see declines in reservations, sales and bookings since public officials requested residents and visitors to voluntarily limit nonessential activities to curb the increase in Hawaii’s COVID-19 cases.

Recently Gov. David Ige told visitors that it was not a good time to visit Hawaii, while Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino asked at a press conference that businesses for the next 21 days consider reinstating work from home provisions when possible and for visitors to remain at their hotel or resort properties.

“Clients have been definitely canceling because of the mandated changes. I think people are especially frustrated and concerned that the policies will continue to change, affecting their ability to proceed with the plans they have made,” said Tori Rogers of Celebrations by Tori. “Many have already rescheduled from last year and have waited a year to celebrate, so the instability is a little nerve wracking.”

Celebrations by Tori has been coordinating events like birthday celebrations, weddings, mitzvahs, showers, graduation parties and more for over 20 years in Hawaii, but now with major modifications.

Now nearly two years into a pandemic, Rogers said “small businesses are suffering” as they try to survive while adhering to all of the health and safety policies and regulations.

A kayak tour paddles from the Olowalu shore in February. Some tour companies, which already took a hit during the early months of the pandemic, are seeing cancellations once more as uncertainty grows over restrictions and rising COVID-19 cases. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

“It’s not that we are not getting inquiries. It’s that there is so much uncertainty regarding what we can and cannot do,” she said Tuesday evening. “How can we continue to lose money due to the constant changes and stay in business, support our families and pay our bills? It’s challenging to plan anything with our clients because of the ever-changing policies and procedures.”

Though there is some public backlash on larger companies being able to host big events, their business supports local employees and small vendors who rely on event and entertainment venues for income.

“Florists order flowers that can’t be returned, so they lose money. Caterers and restaurants lose money on food orders,” Rogers said. “Travel arrangements are made that are not refunded. Vendors who counted on the income from the bookings now cannot because of cancellations.

“Just when it seems like it’s improving, we are set back again.”

Maui Chamber of Commerce President Pamela Tumpap said that many industries that were able to operate during the pandemic, such as construction, health care, grocery stores and so forth, did well during the “roughest points” in the pandemic and are generally still doing well as the pandemic continues.

However, businesses that were “more directly tied to the visitor industry saw significant losses and many did not make it to the upswing in March to July of this year,” Tumpap said.

Visitor arrivals to Maui have increased almost every month since travel reopened last fall, though September and October, typically the slower months for tourism, are anticipated to be much lower.

Since Ige’s and Victorino’s messages last week regarding rising case counts due to the delta variant and hospital capacities, Tumpap said Wednesday night that “calls have been coming in from members worried about another shutdown and hoping the governor has a plan to make them whole for the swift cancellations they are seeing.”

“They are looking for tax relief or grants to make up for the losses experienced,” she said.

Long-time family-owned and operated Tropical Maui Weddings had undergone “many cancellations” when the pandemic first hit the island in 2019, but only one recently since government updates last week.

As long as no other restrictions are imposed, the Makawao wedding planners don’t anticipate any more cancellations from residents or destination clients.

“Everybody is nervous because of what (Mayor Victorino) said; we’re still trying to hold on,” said event planner Sherron Lawrence, also the daughter of owners Jamie and Lori. “Our numbers are much lower than they used to be and we’re still trying to recover from the first shutdown, so we’re just hoping that we can still remain in business. If big luaus and big box stores can run safely, then so can we.”

Tropical Maui Weddings offers services ranging from pre- and post-wedding activity planning, venue selection, transportation, decor consultation, catering and more.

Inquiries and bookings to the wedding planners have mimicked a “roller coaster” depending on the current guidance and updates from public officials, what’s being said in the news, or what the community is discussing.

“We were getting a few a day and now we’re getting one every couple days or week,” Lawrence said Tuesday. “It does affect our business I think.”

The couples getting married these next two months have already postponed and delayed their big day multiple times since 2019 or 2020, so “if they can potentially have their wedding in any capacity, even if it means decreasing their guests by half, they will do it,” she added.

Coordinating through Tropical Maui Weddings or other companies allows for a professionally managed event with added safety measures, she said, as opposed to an uncontrolled party.

Other small businesses and locally operated tour and entertainment companies have been reporting over the course of the pandemic that they cannot afford anymore closures or tightening of rules — they already operate at limited capacities and with health and safety procedures.

Hana and Beyond, a father-son, locally owned and operated tour company for over 30 years, has experienced a major decline in sales, bookings and cancellations daily.

“We understand the policies and restrictions and are doing our best to adhere to safety guidelines and restrictions,” said owner Charlie Ahuna, who was born and raised in Hana. “We will strive to take care of our employees, our community and our guests. If things continue at this rate, many small businesses will suffer greatly.”

Many visitors are notifying Hana and Beyond that they have heard Ige’s messages regarding the COVID-19 policies for Hawaii advertised in their home state via the news and commercials, and are deciding to cancel their trip.

Other reasons deterring guests include messages on social media platforms announcing tourists to “stay away from Hawaii,” Ahuna said Wednesday.

With the combination of COVID-19 protocols and case counts, some businesses have considered voluntary closures, but “they are also waiting for government updates,” Tumpap said.

“Others have been pulling back on operations, such as fewer tours, shorter hours, more employees working from home again,” she added.

Fleetwoods in Lahaina, for example, announced on Facebook on Sunday that it would close voluntarily through Friday to help curb the spread of the COVID-19, saying it’s “the safest decision for the safety of our ohana (and) guests.”

“With COVID cases on a rise for an extended period of time and now at an all-time high, all can see something has to be done and recognize mandates are coming,” Tumpap said. “We also have to address the hard reality, based on case counts, that the spread and rising cases are mostly coming from residents through community spread and gatherings — with visitors representing a very small percentage — and the activities that fuel spread are hurting us all.”

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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