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Maui Mayor Michael Victorino handles a first-term calamity with local charm and quick action

  • COURTESY COUNTY OF MAUI Mayor Michael Victorino smiled during a May 15 virtual press conference that announced a $200,000 donation to Maui United Way by Sentry Insurance Foundation for COVID-19 relief efforts. The ceremonial check was displayed on the screen by MUW President and Chief Professional Officer Nicholas Winfrey.

    COURTESY COUNTY OF MAUI

    Mayor Michael Victorino smiled during a May 15 virtual press conference that announced a $200,000 donation to Maui United Way by Sentry Insurance Foundation for COVID-19 relief efforts. The ceremonial check was displayed on the screen by MUW President and Chief Professional Officer Nicholas Winfrey.

  • COURTESY COUNTY OF MAUI
                                On May 5 the mayor joined professional surfers Kai Lenny and Ian Walsh in handing out face masks at Island Grocery Depot in Kahului.

    COURTESY COUNTY OF MAUI

    On May 5 the mayor joined professional surfers Kai Lenny and Ian Walsh in handing out face masks at Island Grocery Depot in Kahului.

  • COURTESY COUNTY OF MAUI
                                That same day, Victorino and his wife, Joycelyn, visited with volunteers of the Maui Filter Face Mask Project, organized by Jennifer Oberg, at Seabury Hall.

    COURTESY COUNTY OF MAUI

    That same day, Victorino and his wife, Joycelyn, visited with volunteers of the Maui Filter Face Mask Project, organized by Jennifer Oberg, at Seabury Hall.

During one of his recent online coronavirus news conferences, Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino gave a special shout-out to his eldest son, Michael, on his 44th birthday and later invited high school seniors to submit a video clip for use in a graduation celebration to be shown on a future update.

And, of course, he also offered the latest information on how the county is dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Victorino’s daily 4 p.m. news conferences are part informational briefing and part variety show featuring announcements, presentations, special guests and a question-and-answer session with reporters.

The genial host delivers his message with local charm and a friendly smile but easily turns serious as he scolds residents about their responsibility to follow the rules or slams “the knuckleheads” who arrive from the mainland and violate Hawaii’s 14-day quarantine on incoming travelers.

It’s all in a day’s work for Victorino, a first-term mayor whose second year in office has evolved from overseeing the mundane workings of local government in a booming economy to managing perhaps the worst crisis the county has ever seen.

In a recent interview, Victorino, 67, said that while he’s made mistakes, he’s also done his part to help Hawaii achieve the lowest COVID-19 infection and death rates in the country.

Even some of his critics give him props for the way Victorino moved quickly to join Honolulu in enacting an emergency order requiring nonessential workers and residents to stay at home.

“You’ve got to give him a lot of credit for putting the brakes on it early. It was a good decision,” said Maui County Councilwoman Kelly King, who tangled with the mayor over the contentious Lahaina injection well issue that ended in a ruling against the Victorino administration by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Overall, he’s done a great job,” said Council Chairwoman Alice Lee. “He’s tried very hard, and he’s been successful overall with being cautious and fighting the temptation of getting the economy going back too soon.”

Victorino ran into a huge problem early in the outbreak. The state’s largest cluster of coronavirus cases exploded in early April at Maui Memorial Medical Center in Wailuku. Some 38 staff members and 14 patients came down with COVID-19 in a cluster of cases that also spread to the hospital’s oncology department.

Hospital staffers said a confusing set of shifting policies and a shortage of face masks and other personal protective equipment led to the outbreak.

The cluster turned Maui County into the state’s leader in per-capita infections and deaths. As of Thursday there have been 119 cases reported in the county since the start of the outbreak and six deaths — but only four cases had been reported in the previous 30 days, and Maui Memorial was caring for only a single coronavirus patient.

Victorino said the situation kept him up nights.

“I take everything as leader of the county personally,” he said. “I did everything we could from the outside. We tried getting PPE (personal protective equipment), enacting new policies, setting closures and making restrictions.”

Victorino said Maui Health, the nonprofit Kaiser Permanente subsidiary that runs the hospital, was worried about the possibility of being overwhelmed by a surge of coronavirus cases and was trying to preserve its masks.

“I’m not upset. They worked hard to correct the problem,” he said.

The mayor recalled that he initially couldn’t get the test kits he was asking for. The state gave the county only 200 kits.

“It was nothing near what we needed,” he said.

Victorino said he kept on top of the issue, and Maui would eventually become state’s testing-rate leader, with more than 8,000 people tested and only 1.4% testing positive.

How does he assess his own handling of the crisis?

“Only time will tell. Considering where we are and where we came from, I’m feeling a whole lot better. We’ve had only a couple of new case in the last few weeks, and I’m feeling a little more confident about where we are.”

Victorino was elected mayor in November 2018 after maxing out his 10-year term limit on the Maui County Council in 2016.

Born and reared on the Big Island, he studied business management at Hawaii Community College and Hilo College before he was hired to open the Zales jewelry store at the Queen Ka‘ahumanu Center in Kahului. Victorino would go on to work as a McDonald’s restaurant manager and later as an insurance executive.

It was at McDonald’s where he met his wife, the former Joycelyn Nakahashi, who recently retired after a long career with International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 142.

Before his election to the Maui County Council’s Wailuku seat in 2006, Victorino was probably best known for his community activities and as the father of Major League Baseball star Shane Victorino, his youngest son, who went on to become an all-star and a member of two World Series championship teams.

The elder Victorino coached Little League, is a faithful member of the Catholic Church, served in the Knights of Columbus and on the state Board of Education, helped lead the Maui County Fair and other nonprofit organizations over the years.

After his son retired from baseball, Victorino stepped up to the plate to run for mayor, beating his former Council colleague Elle Cochran to replace two-term Mayor Alan Arakawa.

Less than halfway into his first term, however, life turned upside down as the coronavirus pandemic swept through Hawaii.

Victorino was quick to adopt quarantine and isolation measures aimed at keeping the general populace healthy. But the restrictions also cut off tourism, the lifeblood of Maui’s economy, and devastated the island as half of Maui’s workforce lost their jobs and filed for unemployment.

Through it all, the county government remained stable, with no layoffs, furloughs or pay cuts. And nearly $67 million in federal coronavirus relief funds was earmarked for the county.

Victorino said he wants to use the money to help pay overtime for police, firefighters and other first responders and fund programs that help businesses, families and individuals struggling because of the pandemic.

At the same time, the mayor is working with Gov. David Ige and his neighbor island counterparts to gradually open the kamaaina economy.

“I believe we’re at a point where now, all of us, if we work hard and stay diligent, we can reopen Maui County. We can open our economy up not only for us, but for visitors who come in who are safe and not infected with COVID-19,” he said during a recent daily update.

As the opening comes about, Victorino said he’ll push for a safety net of copious testing and contact tracing to safeguard the county.

“When we open up, we’ve got to put a lot of protective layers in place,” he said. “We need to know before anybody comes here: Could they be a carrier? Because that’s the one way we could get another outbreak, if someone is bringing it in.”

Retired University of Hawaii-Maui College economics professor Dick Mayer said the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a fundamental flaw in having tourism completely dominate the economy of Maui. He said Maui’s economy might not recover for two or three years, in part because of lingering fears about travel and affordability for would-be visitors who have also suffered financial setbacks.

“We learned the hard way that we put too many eggs in the visitor industry basket, and now we’re paying the price,” Lee agreed. “We’ve got a lot to plan for and think about.”

Mayer said Victorino should establish a task force to work on diversifying Maui’s economy to buffer the effects of any such future calamities.

Victorino said it’s plainly obvious that diversifying Maui’s economy is indeed necessary, and the community is going to have to pull together and work on it. Government, he said, is going to have to lead the way to change permitting regulations and other policies to make the county more business-friendly.

Click here to see our full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak. Submit your coronavirus news tip.

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