This fall was shaping up to be a boon for Hawaii's wedding industry. Some wedding vendors had booked enough clients during the season to recoup much of their 2020 losses and pay down debt from keeping their businesses afloat during the pandemic.
Then Covid-19's delta variant breeched Hawaii's shores, sending case rates spiking and hospitals into overdrive. Before Labor Day arrived, state officials clamped down once again on large gatherings, and Gov. David Ige held a press conference where he discouraged visitors from coming to the Islands through October. On Oahu, the most populous island, all gatherings of more than 25 people are banned until at least Sept. 22.
After that announcement, wedding venues, photographers, florists and DJs were hit with an avalanche of cancellations. Clients who had booked and rebooked weddings two, three, even four times over were fed up and giving up on their dreams of holding their nuptials in Hawaii.
"The loss of business is tremendous," said Joseph Esser, a Honolulu wedding photographer and president of the Oahu Wedding Association.
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"We were really excited for September and October, and we were expecting to dig out of debt from last year when we tapped into our savings thinking once we reopened it would return to a flourishing business. Now we're back to where we were in March 2020, where we are asking: 'How do we survive?'"
For weddings that were imminent but had to be canceled on short notice, florists were left with unused centerpieces, bouquets and boutonnieres while caterers had walk-in refrigerators full of hors d'oeuvres, steak entrees and desserts that went to waste.
"The timing of the delta variant and the new restrictions has put the entire industry in a spiral downward, back to where we were in 2020," Esser said. "It's actually a little worse than 2020, because most clients were postponements from the previous year, and a lot of them have completely lost faith that they will be able to have their event on our island."
The association did an informal survey of its members after Oahu's four-week ban on large events was announced and found the average loss of revenue in the first five days was $30,000. Some businesses reported losses as high as $200,000.
"We were expecting the last half of this year to produce enough business to make up for the whole year," said Tessa Gomes, a wedding coordinator and owner of Fred and Kate Events. "October was going to be my busiest month of the year, and it's usually busy for my company, but it was way busier than every other month."
In 2019 nearly 100,000 people traveled to the Aloha State to tie the knot, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority. In the most recent report from the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau found the destination weddings account for $16 billion in annual spending statewide.
The governor's pleas for visitors to delay their Aloha State trips and Oahu's crackdown on large events were triggered by the worst Covid-19 case rates the state has seen during the entire pandemic. Between Aug. 31 and Sept. 6, the state reported an average of 702 new Covid-19 cases each day, according to the Hawaii Department of Health, and approximately 65% of the population is fully vaccinated. The state's hospitals are almost all at capacity, and many have delayed elective procedures as they handle the influx of Covid-19 patients.
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Gomes said she would have wanted the industry to have more time to discuss the restrictions with officials and suggested events could be safely held with a thorough mitigation plan in place.
"I just wish we could have had the conversation before events were shut down," Gomes said. "We could do temperature checks, vaccines checks, all sorts of things. The lockdown really hurts the industry, kills small businesses and forces people back on unemployment."
Others called the new rules inconsistent, pointing out that luaus are still being allowed at 50% capacity.
Esser argued that allowing professionally managed events was safer than the shutdown, which will prompt people to hold rogue, unsanctioned gatherings, and Hawaii residents to fly elsewhere to hold their own weddings.
"People have lost faith in the state as a place to do business," he said. "A lot of clients are going to hold their event, and they will do it in Florida or Las Vegas, somewhere that's easier for business, and that's really so damaging to this state."