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Transforming change into progress

Our County

By the end of 2019, more than 3 million visitors had come to Maui County and all indicators pointed to more financial prosperity in 2020. Then came the news of a novel coronavirus from China that would change the history of the world.

Out of an abundance of caution, I issued “stay at home, work from home” orders for Maui County from March 25 to May 31, 2020. The health and well-being of our community quickly became my top priority.

Before March ended, Maui County had partnered with Pukalani Superette and Sysco to distribute 300 bags of food to suddenly unemployed residents. It would be the first of several food distributions throughout the county.

Tourism’s abrupt halt meant crops intended for resorts and restaurants would likely be plowed under. We quickly committed $30,000 a week to buy locally grown produce for community distribution. Ranchers and pig farmers soon added healthy sources of protein to the program. By year’s end, we had distributed more than 8 million pounds of food to Maui Nui residents with our partners Maui Food Bank and Feed My Sheep.

By April, our unemployment rate had gone from 2.1 percent (the nation’s lowest) to its highest at 36 percent. In response, we allocated $3 million in general funds to the Hawaii Emergency Laulima Partnership (HELP) for distribution by Maui Economic Opportunity to help local families pay for essential needs. We also allocated $2 million to the Maui Chamber of Commerce to fund interest-free micro-business loans to help local entrepreneurs survive the economic shock.

Soon after, Maui County received $67 million in federal CARES Act funds. Thanks to the support of the Maui County Council, $9.5 million went to work immediately in the HELP program that offered a financial lifeline for more than 13,000 households.

By early summer, I invited some 30 community leaders to advise us on the best use of CARES Act funding as part of the Mayor’s Economic Recovery and Resiliency Task Force. We embraced their guidance by directing most relief to farmers, ranchers, restaurants, small businesses, nonprofits and local households.

Six local federal credit unions came together to award $8 million through the Kokua Maui County Small Business Recovery & Relief Fund, enabling more than a thousand small businesses to stay afloat.

Anticipating the need for health care workers, we worked with Hale Makua to fund the Health Cares Hui of eight organizations that paid residents to train for new medical jobs, deliver food to the homebound and help low income households get needed medical care.

Our Office of Economic Development sponsored Pop-up Makeke, the online marketplace for locally made products, and E Kupa’a Kakou, a virtual Hawaiian music series that kept our beloved performing artists working while venues were dark. To encourage local commerce, we created Kama’aina First for residents to enjoy discounts at restaurants, hotels, stores and services from local businesses.

Funds also went to hospitals on Maui, Molokai and Lanai to subsidize personal protective equipment and temporary housing costs for essential health care workers. Maui County also rolled out one of the nation’s most robust COVID-19 testing programs. It would later merit an Achievement Award in Public Health from the National Association of Counties.

Despite a few COVID-19 clusters in specific locations, I never mandated another “lockdown” for Maui County after the first one. Our small businesses kept working throughout the pandemic to great results. The financial technology company SmartAsset just released a national study that ranked Maui County as the state’s top spot for small business owners.

Once the vaccine arrived at year’s end, we hoped it would end the pandemic. Instead, COVID-19 lingered, mutated and made its rounds again. We successfully battled surges of the California variant, the delta variant and now the newest omicron variant.

We’re all tired of COVID-19, but we know much more today than we did 22 months ago. My next column will detail our 2021 response to the pandemic and why Maui County’s future is so bright.

* “Our County,” a column from Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino, discusses county issues and activities of county government. The column alternates with “Council’s 3 Minutes” every other weekend. This week’s column is the first in a three-part series on Maui County’s response to the pandemic.

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