In an online address at noon on Friday — the one month anniversary of the deadly fires on Maui — Hawaiʻi Gov. Josh Green announced that West Maui would officially reopen to tourists on Oct. 8.
Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen said he was not part of this important decision.
“I found out about this along with everybody else — I found out about it today,” Bissen said on Friday afternoon during a stop to thank volunteers at the Honokōwai Relief Center run by West Maui residents.
Bissenʻs spokesperson, Mahina Martin, clarified that he was “informed” of the date a few hours before the announcement — during a meeting with the governor at 6:30 a.m.
“The governor does not need my permission to make his decisions. He has his advisors. He has his decisions that he needs to make,” Bissen said. “But you know, we got to try to work together as government.
“And more importantly, my job is to represent my community and find out what the community wants, and not just a segment of the community, but the entire community. And that’s going to come from meetings. And that’s my promise to the community, is to meet with them, and communicate that to the governor and the state.”
In his address, Green said that many people have asked when is the right time to reopen West Maui to visitors.
“There is no easy answer to this question, but I can say that if we support Maui’s economy and keep our people employed, they will heal faster and continue to afford to live on Maui,” he said.
Bissen said he understands the need for the jobs.
“I think we all do,” he said. “Nobody wants to make a crisis worse than it is. But I think we do have to take into account people’s feelings and what they think. And I think what it really comes down to is asking them, and discussing with them, and interacting with them.”
It’s a tough balancing act.
Drive past the Lahaina Civic Center going north, and you would never know there was a disaster that took place nearby — except for all the official and unofficial places that are helping fire survivors.
They include supply distribution centers set up in parks and parking lots; the official Disaster Assistance Centers, Family Assistance Centers and Small Business Administration assistance centers; and the medical services and other help offered by the Red Cross and others at the more than 20 hotels housing more than 6,000 people who have lost their homes.
Right after the Aug. 8 fire, West Maui was no place for visitors. There was no water, electricity and Internet. High winds had downed trees and power lines.
Now, most of these services are back on line. On Thursday, many businesses appeared to be open, including restaurants and bars showing the NFL opener between the Chiefs and Lions.
But many people have expressed on social media and elsewhere these similar sentiments: How can West Maui welcome tourists to resorts where people are staying who are still traumatized by the tragic fire? How can visitors come to a place where the dead are still being identified, and people are still missing? The community, they say, needs more time to mourn and heal.
“My pledge is to meet with our community and hear directly from them what they would like to do; and to really find out who wants it and who doesn’t want it,” Bissen said. “What are the pros and cons?”
Technically, there now are no travel restrictions to any place on Maui, except the approximately 5-mile-square “impact zone” in Lahaina that is guarded 24/7 by law enforcement and military members.
The two roads to West Maui are open to everyone at all hours. But most hotels and other tourist-driven businesses north of Lahaina respectfully have been waiting for the official reopening date to solicit the return of visitors.
Green said his “difficult decision” was meant to bring hope for recovery to the families and businesses in West Maui that have been “so deeply affected in every way by the disaster.”
After the fires, the vast majority of tourists left the island in a mass exodus, and have been slow to return. This has caused people to lose their jobs and businesses to struggle in South Maui and other areas of the island that were not directly affected by the fires.
Bissen reiterated he understands the economic impact but said specifics need to be discussed during the next month for any reopening.
“Is it going to be in phases? Is it going to be in one part of town?” he said. “Clearly, Lahaina Town is not being reopened. So we must be talking about places from Ka’anapali to Kapalua.
“I know there are some businesses that are currently open. There are places that are not affected by what happened. So I think it is going to take time for us to meet with the community and find out what their wishes are.”
He said how the county will reopen is something the county should decide.
“I don’t think there is a one size fits all,” Bissen said. “I don’t think there is only one answer. We can look at different ways of approaching this. … And we’re going to decide that, and then we can communicate that to the governor.”