Merrie Monarch Festival Returns to Hilo, Hālau Navigate Pandemic Challenges
The Merrie Monarch Festival is back! Last year’s competition was canceled because of the pandemic, but hula returns this week to its biggest stage—and this year’s festival will look a little different.
Big Island Kumu Hula Meleana Manuel is beyond ecstatic to have her Kīlauea Hālau Ke ʻOlu Makani ʻO Mauna Loa compete for the first time ever in the prestigious Merrie Monarch Festival. But the pandemic added challenges to the preparations.
“We didn’t go back to practicing until it was late January or beginning of February,” says Manuel. “But even at that time, we had to (have) like five or six (dancers) at a time because we couldn’t go over the amount of gathering people.”
Hula practice wasn’t the only change under COVID-19. Manuel and her dancers also left their families behind to enter mandatory 5-day isolation prior to the competition.
“There’s a total of 20 of us that are quarantining. We are at this beautiful place called Volcano Village Lodge,” says Manuel. “We have a restaurant up here in the village, and so most of the meals are prepared by them and preassembled so that we can just pick up.”
Manuel’s hālau is one of 15 in this yearʻs festival. All are undergoing a 5-day isolation period, plus daily symptom checks and multiple COVID-19 tests.
Liana Honda, Native Hawaiian Programs Manager for the Queen’s Health System at North Hawaiʻi Community Hospital, is in Hilo to help with COVID-19 protocols, which is no small task.
Merrie Monarch Festival performances are being taped through Saturday—ahead of the television broadcast next week beginning Thursday, July 1.
“It's not just the hālau participants, but it is the festival staff, the production staff,” says Honda. “And all of these people also live on different islands, and they’re coming to Hilo all on different days. So it's a matter of juggling when they’re going to take their first test, and where, and what time.”
Honda says each hālau has a designated safety coordinator to ensure compliance and an advanced practice registered nurse on-call 24/7.
“Merrie Monarch was coming up with the emergency protocols before we even had our business protocols in place,” says Hawaiʻi County Mayor Mitch Roth.
He praised festival matriarch Luana Kawelu and her event team for making Merrie Monarch work under COVID-19.
Last year’s cancellation broke a run of 55 consecutive years for the Merrie Monarch Festival. It took a toll not only on the hula world but also on local businesses.
Kūhaʻo Zane, Creative Director for Sig Zane Designs, the iconic Hawaiian clothing company, says, for Hilo natives, Merrie Monarch is more than just a moneymaker.
“The business is really just a side portion that definitely allows economic resilience. But at the same time, for me, it's about the energy of everybody coming to Hilo,” says Zane. “It's about the people that are actually dancing in the competition. I do feel like there's a certain buzz that's happening in this town, and all of that was kind of loss for a little while.”
This year’s festival will be held without an audience at the Edith Kanakaʻole Stadium.
Zane says he can't wait for the return of the Merrie Monarch Festival to Hilo with its usual crowds and energy. In the meantime, he’ll have to enjoy this year’s festival virtually.
This story's audio contains recordings courtesy of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. All photos are courtesy of the Merrie Monarch Festival.