Alfredo G. Evangelista | Assistant EditorCue Fade in … And that was 2020.
Oh what a Year it was. Who would have thought our lives would be turned upside down and health was number one on everyone’s mind?
Actually, in the December 2019 issue of the Fil-Am Voice, many Filipino community leaders had health as their number one concern: “My dreams are that my children will be able to have good health,” said Nora Cabanilla-Takushi.
Melen Magbual Agcolicol expressed hopes that “my family will always stay healthy” while Marilyn Oura listed “good health” as one of her hopes and dreams. Flor Garcia resolved “to stay fit and healthy” while Essie Arruiza included “To be in a better health” as one of her resolutions.
But perhaps Elizabeth Ayson said it best: “At the top of the list is continued good health. Without health, little else is feasible.”
Indeed, without health, everything that was normal stopped. Traveling, in-person meetings, work, school, gatherings, sports events—the list is endless.
And new things became the norm—masks, hand sanitizers, temperature checks, social distancing, virtual meetings with perhaps the most popular via ZOOM, drive-by graduations, and unfortunately, a lot more.
In the March 2020 issue, the Fil-Am Voice began covering the COVID-19 pandemic with a Feature story titled The Corona Virus—A Public Health Situation Constantly Changing. Sadly, COVID-19 was either the Lead Story or the Feature story (or for some months, an extended Lead Story) for almost every ensuing month (elections ruled in the June 2020 issue).
The April 2020 extended Lead Story was titled: We Are All Affected—COVID-19 Disrupts Our Lives while the May 2020 extended Lead Story was titled: Our Disrupted Year—Maui’s Graduating High School Seniors Share How COVID-19 Has Affected Their Final Year of High School and the July 2020 extended Lead Story was titled: Behind the Scenes.
The August 2020 Feature Story was titled: SPORTS—On Timeout, Postponed or (Gasp) Canceled? while the September 2020 Lead Story was titled: Coping with Distance Learning—Students, Teachers and Parents Struggle to Cope.
The October 2020 Lead Story was titled: Businesses Survive During a Pandemic—Key Words of Advice: Ask Questions, Budget, Be Patient, Keep Your Customers Happy while the November 2020 Feature Story was titled The Pandemic Dampens the Holiday Season—COVID Doesn’t Take a Holiday.
Yes, we are consumed by the COVID-19 pandemic—and for good reason. Hawai‘i’s economy that is heavily reliant on tourism suffered and Maui had one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. Not only were the hotels shut down but many small businesses reliant on the visitor industry were severely affected; the government rules also shut down non-essential businesses and when they were allowed to re-open, many were at reduced capacity.
On the island of Maui, as of early December, there were 600 cases, and sadly 17 deaths. (The statewide total as of early December was 18,527 cases with 262 deaths. Nationally, the total was almost 15 million cases with over 282,000 deaths.)
Sadly, our governments’ responses were not always on the same page. From the White House to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the state and local governments. In Hawai‘i, Governor David Ige issued a stay at home order for the entire state in late March. Later, the Governor relinquished some of the control to the Mayors but retained final approval of certain responses.
On Maui, the COVID-19 response has been led by Mayor Michael Victorino.
“This year began with great promise, but by March we knew Maui County would be faced by historic challenges. From a once-in-a-century global pandemic, to raging brushfires, to distance learning, to record unemployment, it feels like 2020 has been one crisis after another,” said Victorino. “The COVID-19 pandemic has come in clusters of cases over the course of several months. Now we’re suffering from COVID fatigue. But we should also be grateful that the people of Maui County have pulled together to get through this the best we can. As island people, we understand that the actions of one affect everyone. So, I’m very proud of the aloha that’s been demonstrated throughout our community this past year.”
The Aloha Spirit was challenged throughout the year
Stay at home; wear a mask; six feet apart; wash your hands; sanitize; quarantine. These words instantly became part of our vocabulary. Social media became an easy way for folks to express doubt the pandemic was real or to easily criticize the actions of government leaders and on Maui, the hospital. The failure of the State Department of Labor and Industrial Relations to timely process all the claims for unemployment insurance did not help and forced the resignation of the Director. (The failure of the State Department of Health to be transparent about contact tracing led to the retirement of the Director of Health.)
“While the Labor Department over the last year delivered a tremendous amount of benefits to an unprecedented number of claimants, too many Hawai‘i workers have waited for months, and worse, remain in limbo waiting to get some response or explanation for processing delays or claim denials,” observed State Senator Gil Keith-Agaran. “While DLIR can blame an antiquated computer system that in retrospect the administration and we in the Legislature should have modernized earlier, the number of people who have never heard back from a real person shows the limits of technology alone in delivering massive services. If people had a bad view of government bureaucracy, I’m afraid the UI situation has only confirmed that for many residents.”
In addition to the high rate of unemployment insurance claims, there has been a significant increase in Medicaid beneficiaries. “As you may be aware, about 63,000 Hawai‘i residents have become Medicaid beneficiaries since the pandemic began, bringing the statewide total of beneficiaries to more than 390,000,” reported Judy Mohr Peterson, the Administrator of the MED QUEST division. “This represents a 19 percent increase in statewide enrollment from a year ago. The increase is most pronounced in Maui county and Kaua‘i county, where the increases are up nearly 21 percent and 19 percent, respectively, over the same time last year.”
Classes canceled; Drive-through graduations; College Plans on Hold; Teachers Stressed
With the outbreak of the pandemic, the Spring Break was extended and for all intents and purposes, classes were canceled—albeit virtual classes were held.
The May 2020 Lead Story featured the first-person accounts of forty high school seniors whose graduation ceremonies were canceled.
Romelyn Joy Tabangcura (who co-authored the article with Ghenesis Balaan) is now a college freshman at UH Maui College. “Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, I made a decision to stay on the island of Maui despite having plans of moving out of the island. My family and I agreed that it would be much safer to stay back for my freshman year since we didn’t know how the virus would play out at the time of my decision,” said Tabangcura. “At first I was sad that I couldn’t start my college career in the most traditional way, but looking back, I’m glad I was able to stay since I had the chance to spend more time with my family and save money as well. I’m currently doing online school which taught me a lot about diligence and the importance of prioritizing. In the upcoming year, I plan to complete my freshmen year on Maui for the spring semester.”
Ethan Evangelista had plans to attend the University of Nevada, Las Vegas but COVID-19 interrupted. He decided to stay at home, taking on-line courses through the University of Hawai‘i Maui College. His sister Haile is a Junior at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington. Because Haile’s classes were all on-line, she opted to stay home during the pandemic.
Like the high school graduates, Zyra Delacruz was deprived of graduation ceremonies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “Not being able to have a graduation ceremony was a big disappointment to my family and me. Graduating from college is one of the biggest milestones in my life and not being able to celebrate it with my family felt like a robbery. It doesn’t feel like I’ve graduated because I couldn’t walk the line.” Delacruz also lost the job she lined up after graduation. “Losing a job that would’ve jump started my career devastated me because I feel that my hard work was all for nothing and now I have to start all over again.”
The September 2020 Lead Story focused on Distance Learning. Students, teachers, and parents were interviewed about how they were coping. Kahului Elementary School teacher Michele Balala felt like it was her “first year of teaching all over again.” In September, Balala expressed her concerns: “I am concerned about teacher burn out. I am working every day, including the weekends, to make sure that my lesson plans are ready and also communicating with parents when they have questions. I am also concerned that students might not make the learning gains they would in a face-to-face classroom.” Now, Balala says “Teachers are worried about bringing students back to school safely and budget cuts.”
No tourists; no jobs
The pandemic also highlighted the State’s overreliance on the visitor industry. All the hotels (and their restaurants) closed except for a few that housed the National Guard, leading to massive furloughs and layoffs. Only recently were visitors allowed to travel—with an option for a negative COVID-19 test or a quarantine. Slowly, workers were called back to work at the large hotels. But some, like the Hyatt Regency Maui still had occupancy as low as 20 percent in December!
“I am blessed and excited to be back to work. I am fortunate enough to have 40 hours a week and almost back to my normal schedule,” said Imelda Delacruz, an employee at Royal Lahaina. “It’s been a challenging time throughout this pandemic, but I’m learning how to adjust with the new norm. Unfortunately, the hotels aren’t in their full capacity so I feel like I’m working in a ghost town. But, I’m grateful to be working during a pandemic.”
In addition to the Royal Lahaina Resort, other Maui hotels that reopened include Andaz Maui, Courtyard by Marriott, Destination Resorts Hawai‘i, Fairmont Kealani, Four Seasons Lāna‘i, Four Seasons Resort Wailea, Grand Wailea A Waldorf Astoria Resort, Ho‘olei at Grand Wailea, Hyatt Regency Maui, Kā‘anapali Ali‘i, Kā‘anapali Beach Hotel, Lahaina Shores, Marriott Residences, Marriott Wailea, Maui Banyan, Maui Beach Hotel, Maui Coast Hotel, Maui Eldorado, Maui Seaside, Montage Kapalua Bay, Nāpili Shores, The Ritz Carlton, Westin Kā‘anapali Ocean Club, Westin Nānea, Westin Ocean Villas and Westin Resort Maui.
Small businesses suffer
The pandemic affected not only the hotels but the many businesses that relied on the visitor industry. Those industries that provided entertainment for tourists—such as zipline companies closed. Companies that provided goods and services to hotels were affected and instituted cutbacks in employee time.
Even companies that did not cater to tourists suffered. Caroline Sadiri, a Certified Optician at Aloha Eye Clinic spoke of the new challenges in serving patients during the pandemic. “We reduced our hours by 80 percent for about three months. Even though we’re back at 100 percent capacity, there are new protocols to follow. For example, we are very careful when we fit our patients with glasses. Although we have plexiglass barriers, we sometimes still need to touch our patients. And after each patient, we sanitize the areas and every eye glass frame that was touched.”
When businesses were reopened, they faced many rules and restrictions and a significant decrease in customers.
“We are keeping our heads above water at this time to keep the business open,” said Kit Zulueta Furukawa, owner of Mystery Maui, an escape room. “We have seen tourist bookings but not yet at the desired level. Our safety and cleaning procedures have heightened as we continue to develop and offer alternate products even though we can’t make long-term projections. Many in our industry have closed their doors, so it will be a true test of grit and resourcefulness.”
The Maui Fair—Maui’s largest community event—was canceled. The Annual Barrio Fiesta was postponed, canceled, and reappeared as a successful virtual event. The Maui Fil-Am Heritage Festival was also canceled although the Philippine Flag Raising ceremony was held but limited to ten folks in attendance.
Weddings, graduation parties, birthday parties, political fundraisers and other large celebrations were canceled. The catering businesses suffered. Binhi at Ani canceled all events and lost all revenues since March.
“It’s been a very difficult time for Binhi at Ani,” said Melen Agcolicol, who became Binhi at Ani’s president in July. “We were hoping to re-open in August but then the COVID numbers increased. Even with the Center closed, we still have bills to pay and had to resort to fundraisers such as Takeout Tuesday and our virtual Barrio Fiesta to raise funds.”
Sharing the Bayanihan Spirit
Despite Binhi at Ani’s own financial issues, the Binhi at Ani Board of Directors approved the #BayanihanFoodDistribution project. “Initially we were only going to do it for a few months,” explained Agcolicol. “But the need is great and thanks to our partnerships with the County of Maui, Maui Food Bank, and our many donors and volunteers, we decided to do it through the end of the year. Our kitchen renovation project is also ongoing and in February, we will transition to our new project #BayanihanFeedingProgram.”
Moving Ahead—A Vaccine For All?
As we go to press, Pfizer has started rolling out a vaccine. The first vaccine was administered in Great Britain—by a Filipina nurse—to an elderly resident. The United States will soon receive its share of Pfizer’s vaccine as well as from other companies.
Maui’s share of the first round will be 16,000 doses which means that 8,000 folks will be initially vaccinated as it’s a two-part dose. In the meantime, until more vaccines become available, the public needs to continue to be vigilant.
“As we move ahead, it’s crucial that we continue to protect one another by following public health and safety guidelines. Mask wearing, physical distancing, frequent hand washing and not gathering in groups works. Let’s keep it up,” said Victorino. “We’ve made it this far. I have faith in the people of Maui County. So, I’m confident that, together, we will rebuild in 2021 and emerge Maui Nui strong.”
Alfredo G. Evangelista is a graduate of Maui High School (1976), the University of Southern California (B.A. Political Science cum laude, 1980), and the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law (1983). He is a sole practitioner at Law Offices of Alfredo Evangelista, A Limited Liability Law Company, concentrating in estate planning, business counseling, nonprofit corporations and litigation. He has been practicing law for 37 years (since 1983) and returned home in 2010 to be with his family and to marry his high school sweetheart, the former Basilia Tumacder Idica.