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Maui’s grueling pandemic year eased by aloha from residents

OUR COUNTY

Exactly one year ago today, the Hawaii Department of Health announced the state’s first positive test result for coronavirus. An Oahu resident, returning from a Mexico cruise on the Grand Princess, experienced telltale symptoms. And so began our year of COVID-19.

Within three weeks, Maui County was under stay-at-home and work-from-home orders. Toilet paper, bleach and sanitizing wipes couldn’t be found on sparse market shelves. Tourism and traffic disappeared. Kids hunkered down for a spring break without an end. Life as we knew it changed in an instant. We had no warning and no time to prepare for the great unknown.

We entered 2020 with the lowest unemployment rate in the nation. Within four months, Maui’s unemployment rate was the highest. How does any community survive such sudden and dramatic disruption?

You must understand that survival is in Hawaii’s DNA. The people of these islands survived the measles epidemic of 1848, the bubonic plague in the late 1870s, the American overthrow in 1893, the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the shock of 9/11 in 2001, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, tsunamis and more. And we will survive COVID-19, too.

Island people have a history of pulling together during hard times because our viewpoint is more “we” than “me.” We share what we have, even if it’s not much. During this crisis, most folks gave what they could. Our community gave money, cans of food, disposable diapers, fruit from backyard trees and more. Local companies made hand sanitizer, manufactured ventilators and more. Others sewed face masks when none were available, then simply gave them away. Neighbors shopped for those who were too vulnerable to be in public. Others gave time to organize food drives, babysit when needed or take kupuna to medical appointments. This is the real aloha spirit. And it still thrives throughout Maui County.

Most crises, like floods or fires, are time-limited. This pandemic has been open-ended. With no conclusion in sight, it has stoked our fears, preoccupied our thoughts and dominated media coverage. One might believe that only COVID-19 happened in 2020, but that is very far from the truth.

For any public leader, this past year has been demanding, not just because of the workload, but from the weight of making decisions that affect lives. The health and well-being of Maui County residents has remained my top priority throughout.

Health is much more than the absence of disease, and well-being makes for peace of mind. My greatest challenge has been balancing both. Finding that sweet spot hasn’t been easy or simple, especially with such a range of public opinion. Some wanted to lock down and shelter in place indefinitely, while others wanted business as usual with no restrictions whatsoever. I tried to do what is right for the majority, to protect your health and guard your well-being.

Recently, our daily COVID-19 case numbers have been higher than I’d like, so we continue to closely monitor daily developments with our medical advisers. I’ve also been forcefully advocating for more vaccines for Maui as soon as possible. The good news is that vaccine supplies are growing quickly.

On Tuesday, I will deliver the first-ever virtual State of the County address in our history. I will tell you about the trials and triumphs of COVID-19, share Maui County’s accomplishments during the worst of times, and introduce a community vision for a post-pandemic “new normal.”

Two years ago, I committed to the folks at Maui Preparatory Academy to deliver the 2021 State of the County address from their new Bozich Center. I chose the site for the convenience of our West Maui community. But COVID-19 restrictions prevent gathering an audience this year.

I could have spoken via Zoom, but I made a commitment. And that means doing what you say you’re going to do. So I put on a suit and tie and drove to Napili to deliver my speech to a small video crew in an empty auditorium.

Please join me for the 2021 Virtual State of the County address at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday on Akaku channel 55 on cable television or online at www.akaku.org.

* “Our County,” a column from Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino, discusses county issues and activities of county government.

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