Even after he paid a penalty to access $10,000 from his 401(k) retirement account, Mariano Lova is struggling to afford the basics: food, medicine and rent.

The 47-year-old hotel housekeeper is one of more than 220,000 people in Hawaii who’ve been put out of work by economic restrictions intended to hamper the spread of the coronavirus.

His income stalled when he was told not to come in to work anymore after he clocked out of his last shift at Halepuna Waikiki by Halekulani on March 8. His attempts to collect unemployment from the state have so far not resulted in any payments, he said.

And so on Friday, Lova joined about 4,000 others in a four-hour wait for free groceries — bread, potato chips, ramen noodles, lettuce, tomatoes, potatoes, a pineapple — from the Hawaii Foodbank’s emergency food drive.

Food Bank Distribution Leeward Community College Coronavirus
Mariano Lova, 47, of Kalihi sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic for several hours at Leeward Community College on Friday to receive emergency food assistance from the Hawaii Foodbank. The hotel worker said this is the first time he has needed help to feed himself. Kuʻu Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2020

The event at Leeward Community College is part of a new series of mass food distributions made possible by a public-private partnership supported by Honolulu County, Hawaii Community Foundation’s Hawaii Resilience Fund and Bank of Hawaii Foundation.

It was Lova’s first time seeking food assistance in his life.

“I have to accept the reality,” he said from behind his mask. “I have to embrace what is happening and find a way to survive.”

For Lova, reality might also mean a career change. The hospitality worker is not optimistic that tourism will make a strong comeback anytime soon.

Food Bank Distribution Leeward Community College Coronavirus
Thousands of people waited for hours in their vehicles for emergency food supplies provided by the Hawaii Foodbank and its partners. Kuʻu Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2020

With so much uncertainty surrounding the return of unrestricted travel to Hawaii, Lova is considering finding more stable work in mail delivery or at a grocery store.

“It will be a long time, I think, for people to feel safe to travel,” Lova said matter-of-factly. “Longer than I can wait, I think.”

Many other people in the organized crush of cars that were stalled for hours in wait of free food shared similar woes.

An airline customer service representative who is working reduced hours said she’s struggling to make the rent for the first time.

A Waikiki restaurant server said he never imagined he’d need food assistance but has already eaten through much of his savings since his income dropped to zero.

Cherylyn Manzano, 71, said she regularly relies on assistance from the Hawaii Foodbank. But now that so many others are newly in need of help, she has to find someone to drive her to a mass distribution event. Then it’s just sit and wait.

At 7:15 a.m. Friday, Manzano was already in line for the food drive at Leeward Community College even though the distribution event wasn’t set to begin until 10 a.m.

“You have to go early or you don’t get,” said Manzano, who lives in senior housing in Pearl City. “But I believe in God so I just take it one moment at a time.”

Lova said the groceries he receives from the Foodbank are also helping feed his 69-year-old mother, who immigrated to Hawaii from the Philippines late last year. She got a job at Kapalama Elementary School in January, but lost it weeks later when the threat of COVID-19 started to alter daily life in the islands, he said.

Food Bank Distribution Leeward Community College Coronavirus Bunny
Bunny Gabaylo, a masseuse, arrived at the food distribution event three hours before it started because he had heard stories about people at previous events who waited for four hours only to be turned away because all of the groceries had run out. He said he needed food to support not only himself but also his eight hanai grandchildren. Kuʻu Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2020

Now Lova is worried about his mother’s health. If she were to need medical help during this time, it would further drain his finances that are already stretched so thin.

“She doesn’t have any medical (insurance) so if something happens, that’s another burden for me,” Lova said. “That scares me. It really worries me.”

Lova said his mother is so fearful of contracting the coronavirus that she hasn’t stepped outside of his Kalihi apartment since March 2.

“She is really afraid of getting sick,” he said. “I’m afraid of us not having enough (money) to survive.”

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