As Honolulu weddings, funerals and conventions welcome large gatherings again, a group of local artists who operate an open-air gallery are wondering why they’re still shut down.

Before the pandemic, artists would display and sell their work near the Honolulu Zoo on Monsarrat Avenue every weekend. It was an opportunity to share their work with the public and supplement their income from other jobs. But when COVID-19 hit, Honolulu shuttered the operation, along with other businesses.

Artist Debra Casey hasn’t been able to sell her photography in her usual spot. Courtesy: Debra Casey

A year later, many other entities are reopening, and the artists feel forgotten. Artist Debra Casey said she’s lost half her income because of the closure and has been contacting the city for permission to operate to no avail. A petition to bring the gallery back has over 200 signatures. 

“We’re kind of in limbo, and there is no answer as to when that limbo might end,” she said. “We’ve fallen through the cracks.”

Art on the Zoo Fence, as the gallery is known, was closed on March 18, 2020, according to the city parks department. It was later allowed to reopen but then was shut down again in August.

The artists were pleased to be able to resume working in the fall, Casey said, but in January, their permit expired and the city has refused to issue another one.

“Over the past year, city parks and the various use of park facilities have experienced a fluctuating pattern of allowable public activity,” Nate Serota, a Honolulu parks and recreation spokesman, said in an email. “This was the nature of the pandemic.”

The art gallery is usually located on Monsarrat Avenue abutting the Honolulu Zoo. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Other areas of island life have resumed, including the reopening of bars where people can sit inside, unmasked, for hours at a time. And Mayor Rick Blangiardi said he plans to keep those operations open even as cases rise and the island’s original reopening plan would likely have triggered additional restrictions.

Compared to some of the businesses that are now open, Art on the Zoo Fence is much safer, Casey said. The artists are masked and practice social distancing. There are no crowds, and the whole operation is outdoors, where the risk of spreading the virus is much lower.

There is no real reason it should be shut down,” Casey said. “They are opening all these things indoors, and I still can’t do my job that I do every weekend.” 

She could also sell her art at farmers markets, which are open, but Casey said it’s more physically and financially demanding to erect a booth than to hang her photography on the zoo fence. She tries to earn income by driving for Grubhub, she said, but her car is starting to fall apart.

Keo Genus, an artist who has displayed and sold his paintings on the zoo fence for five years, said the shutdown has had a financial impact on him, too. 

“It helped me keep afloat in Hawaii,” he said. “Since the pandemic, it’s been a lot more challenging. That income has been cut off.”

The parks department said the artists are not the only ones in this position and that the city strives to be as fair as possible. Serota noted that the monthly craft fair at Kapiolani Park also lacks a permit and is therefore on a hiatus.

“As restrictions for commercial activities are loosened, we are looking to see how we can accommodate the wide variety of activities that our parks would normally host, including merchant fairs such as this,” he said.

Sports will be permitted again starting on April 12 and the wedding industry can now host outdoor gatherings with up to 100 people, he said.

“However, because parks are open, and are public lands with multiple access points, it is very difficult to ensure that group activities like this follow COVID safety guidelines, as opposed to a private event or commercial property which can easily impose restrictions,” he said.

Casey said she’s desperate for some indication of when the artists can get back to work.

“I would like some acknowledgment from the mayor, some sort of light at the end of the tunnel, something saying when it’s possible that we can set up again,” she said. “Any information would be better than what we’re getting now, which is nothing.” 

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