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Oʻahu Gathering Restrictions Put Wedding and Events Industry in 'Dire Situation'

Courtesy Oahu Wedding Association

The wedding and events industry is one of the most impacted by the pandemic.

"We were the first to close, and we'll likely be the last to reopen," said Rick Schneider, political action committee chair for the Hawaiʻi Events Coalition.

The industry not only relies on visitors for weddings, conferences and other events, but it also relies on local occasions. But due to gathering restrictions, it makes it nearly impossible to manage

"It really is unfortunate that we're not able to make that distinction between a social gathering and a professionally managed event," said Joseph Esser, president of the Oʻahu Wedding Association.

"We can take all the known protocols in COVID safety in order to have an event, and have that event run safely."

Esser says the limitations don't make an exception for professionally managed events, such as weddings. So if a wedding were to happen outdoors, the 25 person cap includes bride, groom, guests and staff.

"This targeted shutdown is having an enormous cost to all the businesses and employees that rely on weddings and events to provide for their families," said Esser.

"With the expiration of unemployment benefits for most in our industry, we are in a dire situation and many companies are on the verge of permanent closure."

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi re-implemented the city's social gathering restrictions to 10 people indoors, and 25 outdoors in late August. The move was in response to soaring new reported COVID cases, and high hospitalization rate — pushing systems to capacity limits.

On Monday, the restrictions were extended for another 28 days — until October 19. During a press conference, Blangiardi stated case numbers do seem to trending downward, but warned that it's still too early to make any changes.

"We know that the curtailing of large gatherings has a lot to do with communal spread, which is why we made a decision and it's reflective in the numbers coming down," said Blangiardi.

Blangiardi noted the key metric for any change will be local hospital capacity.

Schneider and Esser say organized events not only follow CDC safety precautions, but they often go beyond what is required.

"We supply COVID safety officers, we do temperature checks, we ensure that everyone who comes is vaccinated," Schneider said. "So the rules that we've put in place are extremely strong deterrents to any kind of spreader event."

Schneider claims professionally managed events have not caused a reported cluster by the state Department of Health.

But in July, a cluster of 17 COVID-19 cases were tied to a wedding reception held at an indoor banquet hall on Oʻahu, according to the DOH's biweekly cluster report. Twenty eight people attended the wedding — 12 would test positive for the coronavirus and then infect five who didn't attend.

Only eight of the attendees were vaccinated, and four tested positive. Of those infected, two were hospitalized, with one dying.

Schneider says clusters associated with events in DOH reports were not professionally organized.

But despite the safety precautions organizers take, the restrictions hurt businesses and their employees. The Hawaiʻi Events Coalition estimates its members lost between $20-$30 million due to cancelled events.

"Our booking horizon is often six to 18 months out. So when we're closed down, we can't just start up again and start making money," said Schneider.

"We need to assure our clients that their event can happen, and it takes months of planning. So anytime we have restrictions like this, it doesn't just hurt us for the time that the restrictions are in place, it hurts us way down the road because nobody wants to book because of the uncertainty."

Both Esser and Schneider say they would like Oʻahu to mirror Hawaiʻi's other counties when it comes to professionally organized weddings and commercial events. In the other counties, events can have more than 50 people — as long as a mitigation plan is filed with the county.

Casey Harlow is an HPR reporter and occasionally fills in as local host of Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Contact him at or on Twitter (@CaseyHarlow).
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