Organizers cancel Merrie Monarch Festival, citing ongoing coronavirus fears

Updated: Mar. 13, 2020 at 7:47 AM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - The Merrie Monarch Festival, the biggest stage for hula in the world, will be canceled this year because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The 57th annual festival was to run from April 12 to 18.

“This was such a hard decision to make,” said Merrie Monarch Festivals President Luana Kawelu, in a news release.

“But we could not risk the health and well-being of our community, halau participants, vendors and the thousands of people who attend Merrie Monarch every year.”

Participating kumu hula and judges were notified of the cancellation earlier Thursday.

Tens of thousands flock to Hilo from around the state and globe every year for the event, an incredible display of ancient and modern hula.

Organizers say the next festival will be held in 2021. A firm date hasn’t yet been set.

They said it can’t be postponed because of the planning required for the event, which also features a large craft show and a host of other cultural gatherings.

Kumu hula Mapuana DeSilva, of Halau Mohala Ilima, said that she completely supports the decision to cancel the festival.

“It’s just not worth taking the risk,” she said. “We all know that our kupuna would not be able to stay away. To put them in a situation where they could be vulnerable, it’s just irresponsible.”

“On one hand I’m relieved, and on the other hand, I’m sad,” said kumu hula Sonny Ching of Halau Na Mamo O Puuanahulu. “Of course we’re sad for our students, especially those that are making their first time participating.”

“I know other kumu hula and their halau support whatever decision she (Kawelu) made, and we will follow her lead,” said kumu hula Lopaka Igarta-Devera, also of Halau Na Mamo O Puuanahulu.

Twenty-nine women and 13 men were scheduled to go to Hilo for the competition. Ching and Igarta-Devera met with them during a regularly-scheduled practice Thursday night, and decided to keep working.

“All we can do is stay positive and move forward again and we what we do," said Igarta-Devera. "We are hula, and so we’ll continue to dance and continue to create and lead our students.”

The festival is the latest large event in Hawaii to be canceled or postponed amid growing fears of the coronavirus.

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The cancellation is expected to have a major financial impact on Hilo town, which expects the influx of tens of thousands who rent vehicles, book hotel rooms, eat at restaurants and buy from vendors.

“This is the one time that Hilo people can really earn probably their annual income for the year, and are dependent upon Merrie Monarch for that,” said Vicky Holt Takamine of the Pa`i Foundation.

She also said cancelling the Merrie Monarch means halau take a hit on money they’ve already spent for airfare, transportation, lodging and more.

“This could be between 20, 30, 40 thousand dollars per halau,” she said.

It would cost Halau Na Mamo O Puuanahulu even more than that because of the large size of the group.

“Some things financially, we might just have to take a loss on it, but there’s nothing we can do about it,” said Igarta-Devera.

He and Ching haven’t decided exactly what they will do, but right now they’re planning to have their students perform their planned hula next year.

In the meantime, the students will continue to practice.

“It’s not just about Merrie Monarch this year, but it’s about Merrie Monarch next year, and the year after, and the year after that,” said Ching.

“I think she made the right decision.”

Earlier Thursday, Kamehameha Schools announced it was suspending its annual Song Contest, a much-anticipated competition that draws thousands.

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