Hawaii moves a step closer to reopening its economy Thursday by letting tourists sidestep COVID-19 testing and quarantine requirements by showing proof of vaccination, but numerous businesses are still suffering from restrictions designed to stop the spread of the virus.

Hawaii is now the only U.S. state with such restrictions still in place, the Associated Press reported this week. While the state’s COVID-19 liaison, Lt. Gov. Josh Green, has said that might change early next month, Gov. David Ige has shown no sign of changing his plan, which calls for lifting restrictions only when 70% of the population is vaccinated.

In the meantime, although the hospitality business has opened fully and bounced back substantially, driven by a daily average of more than 32,000 passenger arrivals per day so far this month, some industries remain hamstrung by restrictions limiting things like the size of gatherings and social distancing requirements. The latest change in the travel rules, which goes into effect today, is expected to boost tourism more, even as some businesses that serve tourists can’t fully reopen.

Restaurants, for instance, still can only use 75% of their seating capacity, and they’re relatively lucky. Things like special events face bigger burdens. It’s not merely capacity limits, testing and social distancing rules that present a problem, events executives say, it’s also the difficulty of planning events months into the future when rules might change.

“The events are going to be much smaller,” said Denise Hayashi Yamaguchi, founder and chief executive of the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival. The issue: although restrictions might be lifted by October, when the festival is held, Yamaguchi said she can’t count on it.

“We are basing what we are doing in October on rules today,” she said.

Concert promoter Johnny Mack.
Concert promoter Jonny Mack has spent years building a music festival in Hawaii, but even as the economy reopens, this year’s event is in peril because of COVID-19 restrictions and other factors. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The result: a posh event that normally hosts 7,500 over three weeks, including thousands of well-heeled travelers, will now host about one third of that, Yamaguchi said.

And things are even worse for other event organizers. Concert promoter Jonny Mack has been producing big events in Hawaii since 2003 as a partner with the Dream Weekend Hawaii Music Festival, the Hallow-Baloo Music and Arts Festival in Chinatown and the New Year’s event at Aloha Tower.

Mack envisions making the Dream Weekend a signature destination event for Hawaii, and to that end he’s brought in big stars like Usher, Marshmello and Snoop Dog to play at Aloha Stadium. But this year, even though Hawaii has emerged from the pandemic, the event is up in the air.

First, Mack said, there’s a problem using Aloha Stadium, which wasn’t able to do necessary feasibility studies during the pandemic. That means there’s no venue in the islands with the 30,000-person capacity needed to cover expenses, which includes hiring an army of drivers, security workers and technicians, as well as the artists.

Current restrictions for large outdoor events allow only 33% of the venue’s capacity to be used, he said, but that jumps to 67% if attendees are vaccinated. It’s still hard to make a profit under that condition, Mack said. So the question is whether to wait and risk all the big names being snatched up by competitors or to move ahead amidst uncertainties.

“Promoting is already high-risk, educated gambling,” he said. “Now you’re adding so many extra factors to a dynamic situation.”

Lt. Gov. Josh Green, pictured here speaking to Civil Beat reporters on Zoom in February, is pushing to lift all COVID-19 restrictions next month. 

Mack was Hawaii’s representative with the National Independent Venue Association, which successfully lobbied the U.S. Congress to provide help to entertainment venues through a Small Business Association grant program set up under the American Rescue Plan. Some 30 local businesses were able to land about $20 million to $30 million from the program, he said.

Still, his bigger idea, to create a signature music festival for Hawaii, is on hold.

“Nobody has created a destination event for Hawaii,” he said. “And that was the vision — to create a destination event that could put Hawaii on the map.”

Green said there’s no reason not to lift restrictions for events where people have been vaccinated.

“If people are vaccinated, there’s no reason we shouldn’t allow them to go do big events,” he said. “That’s the point of the vaccination. It allows you to go back to normal.”

At the same time, he said he’s lobbying Ige to lift the restrictions entirely when the governor’s current emergency proclamation expires on Aug. 6.

“It’s definitely a possibility, but it’s going to be up to the governor,” Green said.

Still, Green laid out his rationale for lifting restrictions on Aug. 6.

By then, he said, 65% of Hawaii’s population should be vaccinated. Add another 5% of the population that has contracted COVID-19 and recovered, and that’s the equivalent of 70% of the population being vaccinated, Green said.

“Having the disease is like getting vaccinated,” he said, although he added that researchers generally don’t know how long an exposed person stays protected from the virus.

However, Green did say that it’s far from clear how long it could take to get vaccine shots into the arms of another 5% of the population, as Ige wants before he lifts restrictions.

“It could take a very long time to get to 70%,” he said.

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