Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said Monday he will allow fabric stores on Oahu to reopen as essential businesses, but on a limited basis.
Customers may purchase and pay for fabric online, and receive their order by mail. Customers can also place an order in advance, then go to the store in person and have the fabric delivered to them in their car, similar to the “farm-to-car” initiative.
Fabric stores may also allow two customers to enter the store to look at materials, then make a purchase and leave. Only two, however, may enter the store at a time, to ensure social distancing.
Caldwell said he wanted to make sure people had the ability to purchase materials to make masks, given that earlier this month he had strongly recommended people wear masks when going out in public.
“You can’t line up outside the store,” said Caldwell. “You have to find another way. You can park in a parking space, go in, look at fabric, pay and sit in the car and have it delivered outside. You could perhaps ask for a swatch to be brought to the car to touch and feel it and see it if is appropriate for a mask.”
On Friday, Fabric Mart was ordered to temporarily close its three stores on Oahu because it did not comply with the mayor’s stay-at-home order, which previously said fabric stores were not considered essential.
Following Fabric Mart’s closure Friday, a flurry of protest arose among Hawaii residents, who said fabric stores are essential, particularly when demand for cloth face masks are at an all-time high.
An online petition launched by Honolulu City Council candidate Jacob Aki had 500 signatures Monday, urging the mayor to consider fabric stores essential and to reopen them during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some petitioners also protested a drive-thru and pickup model, saying they needed to inspect the weave of a fabric in person before making a purchase.
Others said stores such as Fabric Mart had already been limiting the number of customers inside and reminding those in line to remain 6 feet apart.
“These stores have been providing a valuable resource,” said Aki. “They’ve seen an uptick of people coming in, and they’ve already made the proper changes. They’ve already implemented social distancing.”
Many of them, like Kaimuki Dry Goods and Kuni Island Fabrics, are also mom-and-pop shops that may not be able to pivot abruptly to online sales, he said. Caldwell should have talked to fabric shops first, he said, and he hoped the petition would start the conversation.
Rumi Murakami, a Honolulu fashion designer now sewing fabric face masks for free, signed the petition because she was upset by the closure.
If she broke a needle or needed sewing machine oil, the first place she would go is to her local Fabric Mart. She thinks of Fabric Mart as the “Home Depot” of sewing needs.
“If you have a sewing machine at home and you want to make masks for your family or friends or you want to donate, it’s frustrating to have this important resource suddenly cut off,” said Murakami. “There’s a great need right now.”
She is getting requests daily and has donated numerous masks, including to employees at a women’s shelter.
Maya Pueo von Geldern, a Kailua-born freelance fashion designer now living in Portland, Ore., has been matching those who sew with essential worker requests through Masks4 Hawaii, a Facebook group. She has also sent more than 100 hand-sewn masks to Hawaii.
“I think one of the hardest things for sewists is they’re willing to give their time, energy and expertise to help protect our communities, and it doesn’t feel like we’re being supported,” she said.
Angie Kim, owner of Fabric Mart, said she had been limiting the number of shoppers to between six to 10 before closing Friday. She is, however, overwhelmed, with eight times more orders than before the pandemic started.
Fabric Mart in Aiea measures about 15,000 square feet, so she could reasonably accommodate more than two customers at a time.
She will work on an appointment system that will be available on hawaiifabricmart.com.
“Honestly, our concern is for the public safety as well as for the safety of employees, too,” she said.