As Hawaii rides waves of tourists and another $6 billion in federal relief money out of the worst days of the economic crisis brought by COVID-19, one industry is asking why it’s being overlooked.

“Weddings have still been completely shut down, and that’s been frustrating,” said Joseph Esser, a wedding photographer who also heads the Oahu Wedding Association. A range of businesses, including photographers, makeup artists, cake makers and florists who specialize in Hawaii’s wedding business have been hit.

“Most have taken an 80 to 90% hit in revenue, and some have taken a 99% hit,” said Esser, who led a rally at Honolulu Hale last week to push Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi to allow weddings to open to more than 10 people.

Melissa Le holds her sign in support of her sister’s wedding planner business with other wedding industry advocates fronting Honolulu Hale.
Melissa Le holds her sign in support of her sister’s wedding planner business with other wedding industry advocates fronting Honolulu Hale. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

“Static events” where people don’t move about and mingle are now allowed on Oahu. Esser asks why couldn’t people have “static weddings.”

And Esser isn’t the only person asking about the wedding business.

During Monday’s meeting of the House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness, weddings came up during a presentation by U.S. Rep. Ed Case, who briefed the committee members on Congress’ latest stimulus program, known as the American Rescue Plan.

The measure will provide $6 billion for Hawaii, Case said, with special programs to provide money for hard hit businesses like restaurants and entertainment venues. That news drew a response from Pamela Tumpap, president of the Maui Chamber of Commerce.

Tumpap noted that wedding planners had been especially hurt by the pandemic and asked if there was anything specific for them in the bill.

“I don’t know about the wedding business,” Case said.

What he did say is that there could be a way to create benefits for weddings at the administrative level as the U.S. Treasury Department creates regulations and guidance to administer the law.

That’s good news to people like Esser.

Wedding Photographer Joseph Esser stands with his gear at his residence in Kailua. Esser was saying he wished the leaders in government made a decision on when Hawaii would be opening up.
Wedding Photographer Joseph Esser, president of the Oahu Wedding Association, said the industry feels government officials view the industry as “invisible.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“Obviously what we’re doing here is just trying to get our businesses open,” he said. “But we’re in desperate need of financial relief.”

Weddings in Hawaii are big business, in part because the events bring people to the islands, and they often stay not just for the wedding festivities but also tack on extra days. In 2018, about 102,000 people traveled to the state to get married, the Hawaii Tourism Authority reported. That accounted for just over 83,000 visitor days. What’s more, the vast majority – some 72,000 – stay in hotels. And they tend to stay a long time: slightly more than eight days on average, the HTA reported.

In addition, marrying couples also often bring people with them. Nearly one in four marriages are destination weddings, according to a recent report by the the Hawaii Visitor and Convention Bureau, and it all adds up to big bucks for the state: some $16 billion in annual spending.

Esser said most wedding business operators couldn’t participate in the federal Paycheck Protection Program, and he said unemployment insurance and federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, known as PUA, went only so far.

“Getting unemployment isn’t going to help your business,” he said. “Getting PUA isn’t going to help your business.”

He said he had spoken to Blangiardi and is cautiously optimistic. Blangiardi’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

In the meantime, Esser said, there are many unanswered questions. Now is the time to start planning for the summer, in advance of vaccinations rolling out.

“If we wait until the entire island is vaccinated, the summer wedding months are just going to be a wash, and we’re going to bleed out,” he said.

There’s also a question of when, under the city’s tier system, weddings could actually open. Under the current system’s next stage – known as Tier 4 – social gatherings like weddings could have 25 people. But that’s not really many when factoring in people like officiants, caterers, photographers and the like, Esser said.

He asked when the next stage will be.

“What’s Tier 5,” he said. “When can we get back to actually conducting business?”

The lack of information, he said, is demoralizing.

“We are businesses, but somehow we’re not being seen,” he said. “We’re just invisible, it seems like.”

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