Peter Merriman. Image courtesy Merriman’s Hawaii

As awareness of the COVID-19 pandemic began to grow in Hawaiʻi, chef and restaurateur Peter Merriman, owner of 10 Merriman’s and Monkeypod restaurants throughout the state, wrote to Hawaiʻi Lieutenant Gov. Josh Green. 

“I said, ‘I don’t know what we can do to help, but we’re here if you need help,’” he told MauiTime in an interview.

Tuesday morning, Green responded. “He said, ‘What would be good is you would close.’”

That is not what Merriman expected, nor the 1,000 employees he laid off after the last dinners were served Tuesday night, as his restaurants move to take-out service only. “These people have rent checks, they have car payments, and they’ve got kids, so it’s a big deal. There’s about 14 days worth of unemployment benefits and then what happens? I really hope the government figures out how to send everybody some money.”

Like other restaurant owners who see lots of tourist traffic, Merriman was conflicted over the situation. 

“We have a tremendous volume of business,” he said. “Right now we have to cancel 300 reservations tomorrow, and that’s just at one of our restaurants. What people don’t understand is that there are tourists already here, and some of those tourists are extending their stays because they don’t want to go home. So again, it becomes a question of the employee. I want our employees to have work available to them, but do I want them exposed to 200-300 diners in one room? It’s an extremely confusing situation.”

Besides that, he added, “The group no one’s thinking about is the small farmer sitting on crops all around the state that he was going to sell to me tomorrow and the next day and next week. Now what’s going to happen to him?”

In his 35 years in Hawaiʻi – 25 of them on Maui – Merriman said he’s never seen anything like the crisis that’s enveloping the islands. September 11 was similar, he said, “but that was one particular impact. For five days, there were no flights.” 

But this? He paused. “You try to figure out where the end of it is and it’s impossible. When do we reopen? That’s going to be really interesting.” Merriman knows it won’t be in 15 days, as Gov. David Ige suggested in his press conference Tuesday. “I think it’s until further notice. We haven’t even gotten close to the peak of this yet.”

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