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Wedding industry rally seeks Oahu reopening

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Several wedding business owners and employees rallied at Honolulu Hale, above, to reopen the wedding industry after a yearlong closure due to the coronavirus pandemic.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Several wedding business owners and employees rallied at Honolulu Hale, above, to reopen the wedding industry after a yearlong closure due to the coronavirus pandemic.

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Melissa Le of Esselle Weddings held a sign Thursday at the corner of Punchbowl and South King streets. She was just one of several wedding business owners and employees who rallied at Honolulu Hale.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Melissa Le of Esselle Weddings held a sign Thursday at the corner of Punchbowl and South King streets. She was just one of several wedding business owners and employees who rallied at Honolulu Hale.

Oahu’s wedding industry rallied Thursday at Honolulu Hale to urge Mayor Rick Blangiardi to reopen weddings under the city’s new Tier 3 structured-events mandate.

About 60 people turned out to support the Oahu Wedding Association, a nonprofit trade association. The rally also drew supportive honks from nearby drivers. The organization represents over 120 local small businesses that work in the local wedding industry.

Blangiardi met with the group in the rain on the sidewalk in front of Honolulu Hale.

“I really wanted the weddings. You’re at the wrong building. We fought for this; we couldn’t get it,” Blangiardi told members of Oahu’s wedding industry. “I know you said it’s a structured event. I don’t disagree. Unfortunately, it’s celebratory. People dance and they sing and they hug, and they don’t like that at the Department of Health.”

Oahu Wedding Association President Joseph Esser said he was heartened by Thursday’s unplanned meeting with Blangiardi and hopes it will pave the way to a formal sit-down with city and state decision-makers.

Blangiardi said in a statement released late Thursday afternoon that he would not give up on the issue and believed that there “may be a way for the wedding industry to operate in a safe manner.”

Blangiardi said his administration will continue discussions with the state regarding the possibility of easing restrictions on the industry. But said the “industry must also know it cannot have rogue events with large numbers of people, because that will hurt the chances of moving forward.”

He said the community also needed “to do its part in preventing unpermitted social gatherings. People must continue safe practices like wearing a mask, keeping their distance and washing their hands.”

Esser said Oahu’s wedding industry is filled with commercially licensed and insured owners that can follow the COVID-19 safety measures and protocols required of the structured live events that have been allowed to operate. Esser said Oahu’s industry shouldn’t be discriminated against, especially when luau are allowed to welcome hundreds of guests and bars and restaurants are now open.

“We want the opportunity to make a case that commercial weddings can be done safely on Oahu,” he said. “They are already happening on Maui, where the wedding industry rallied with the mayor and put together a pretty thorough safety protocol and guidelines. They are allowed up to 100 persons, including staff.”

The state Department of Health did not directly comment on the issue and instead directed the Honolulu Star-Advertiser to the guide­lines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for large events and gatherings. The CDC “continues to recommend that large gatherings be avoided, particularly those in which physical distancing cannot be maintained between people who live in different households.”

Still, Oahu moved into the less restrictive Tier 3 of the city’s four-tier economic recovery plan Feb. 25 after being in Tier 2 since Oct. 22. Tier 3 permits social and outdoor recreational gatherings of up to 10 people, and restaurants to seat 10 people at a table. Blan­giardi on March 11 announced modifications to Tier 3, including allowing bars to reopen under the same conditions as restaurants and extending the curfew until midnight.

Under the less restrictive level, restaurants and spiritual services can operate at full capacity as long as establishments maintain 6-foot distancing. Funeral services don’t have attendance limits. Structured events, such as graduations and seminars, are also now permitted, as long as 6-foot distancing is maintained.

People are allowed to attend group fitness classes indoors with up to 10 participants. Gym capacity has been increased to 50%, and group fitness classes can be held indoors with up to 10 participants.

Esser said the relaxation in rules didn’t do much to improve operations for Oahu’s wedding industry, as the limit on wedding attendance was increased from five to only 10, a count that includes support staff.

Esser said Oahu’s wedding industry is in dire financial straits, and worse yet, many members have not qualified for relief. Some owners have been forced to close or declare bankruptcy. He is also aware of workers who have moved off the island.

It’s been a tough year for Wesley and Julie Nakano of From Above Entertainment, who said that they lost up to 80% of their family income despite pivoting to providing entertainment for drive-thru graduations.

“We started our business five years ago, but I jokingly tell my wife that it’s only four years because we didn’t work last year,” Wesley Nakano said. “As any true man, a husband, a provider, like, it’s hard for me to worry about bills and not knowing if our electricity is going to get shut off or credit card companies calling me. That happened last year — it was so hard.”

Nakano, who spoke to Blangiardi at the rally, said he is hopeful that Blangiardi will continue to fight for Oahu’s wedding industry, which he said will do its part to ensure that weddings can be safely held.

“It’s not just about the industry. So many visitors and local residents have been disappointed,” Julie Nakano said. “We’re still getting cancellations for future events because our clients don’t know what’s going to happen. We’re just hopeful that it’s going to turn around.”

In the absence of regulations, there have been complaints about rogue weddings, which are hard to monitor and shut down. Hawaii Quarantine Kapu Breakers said it reported a wedding with an estimated 750 guests was illegally taking place in Kahuku on March 12, and was frustrated when nothing was done.

A recent DOH cluster report also noted that three social gatherings were responsible for 31 positive COVID-19 cases on Oahu, and a separate cluster in a restaurant contributed to seven positive cases.

“Hearing about the clusters associated with social gatherings is troubling because it shows people are letting their guard down and not taking the situation serious enough,” Blangiardi said in a statement. “Ultimately, the state would have to approve any easing of restrictions or allowing wedding activity, but that is less likely to happen if there are clusters related to gatherings.”

In addition, Blangiardi pointed out that the Honolulu Liquor Commission and Honolulu Police Department have temporarily closed five bars on Oahu for 24 hours for violating the emergency orders since the Tier 3 modifications began last week.

However, Oahu’s favorable COVID-19 metrics still are holding. Thursday’s seven-day average case count for Oahu is 32, and the seven-day average positivity rate is 1.0%, according to Blangiardi.

That was slightly better than the state’s seven-day average positivity rate, which was 1.1%, according to the Hawaii COVID-19 Data dashboard. Thursday’s statewide positivity rate was at 1.38%.

Thursday’s new statewide infection cases include 38 on Oahu, 39 on Maui, seven on Hawaii island, two on Molokai and two Hawaii residents diagnosed outside the state, according to health officials. As a result of updated information, state health officials recategorized one case from Kauai to Oahu in the counts.

The 88 new coronavirus infections brought the state’s total since the start of the pandemic to 28,509 cases.

State health officials reported no new corona­virus-related deaths Thursday, and the statewide death toll remained at 451.The coronavirus-related death count since the pandemic began includes 359 fatalities on Oahu, 53 on Hawaii island, 35 on Maui, one on Kauai and three Hawaii residents who died outside the state.

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