Live Music: On Again, Off Again, On Again


My Monday morning started with a slew of emails and Facebook messages from upset musicians and music fans regarding an incident that happened Saturday night at Pineapples, an open-air restaurant in downtown Hilo. It’s only been one week since live music returned to a number of our venues.

According to Pineapples’ owner Pamela Owens, an investigator for the Department of Liquor Control, Andrew Kouchi, and an assistant, informed manager Linnsey Wheeler that live music was not allowed due to COVID-19 related regulations. “He did allow our musician Boni Norito to finish out his set, but said now that we have been warned, if [we] do it again we would be fined $2000 to $3000,” wrote Owens in a Facebook message to me.

“This same investigator came in earlier that day and was literally pointing his finger at my customers saying they couldn’t just sit there ‘pounding brews’ at the bar without having ordered food.  My guests were insulted/confused, and I was left wondering what the hell he was even talking about,” continued Owens.

Rhonda Nichols at the Hilo Burger Joint had this to say: “I received calls Sunday morning from a musician that plays at Pineapples. She asked why I was allowed to have music and Pineapples had to cancel theirs. I called the owner of Pineapples, Pam Owens. She confirmed that they had been threatened with a $3,000 fine if they continued to play live music.”

Meanwhile, musician Brandon Nakano posted on Facebook that his Sunday gig at the Hilo Burger Joint, a short distance from Pineapples, was canceled. “[I]  just found out that the County of Hawai’i is NOT allowing music. So, I don’t have a gig tonight,” Nakano wrote. “During these tumultuous times, I believe that music is making a difference, it is healing. All we want to do is keep spirits up and provide for our ‘ohana, not too much to ask in my opinion.”

I decided to reach out to Gerald Takase, the Director of the Department of Liquor Control on the Big Island, for clarification about what happened at Pineapples last Saturday, and the rippling effect it had on other island venues.

Regarding the threat of a fine and warning for having live music: “I think they’re [Pineapples] exaggerating it because we had told our investigators ahead of time… they were only supposed to give them a warning first. And I’m pretty sure that’s what they did.”

Enforcing health guidelines at venues: “There was some discussion last week about entertainment and whether they were going to allow singing. And it was just more than just entertainment… bars, restaurants, karaoke, church choirs, and all that. And health officials were concerned that by singing, you have a greater spread of it [COVID-19]. But in the end, the mayor decided that he is not going to stop it [live music], that the entertainers need to work as well. And, as long as they can follow social distancing [guidelines], he’s going to be OK with it.”

Using the Department of Liquor Control for COVID-19 health concerns: “We are part of the County. So, we need to watch and enforce all the rules that are put out by the County. Entertainment in liquor establishments is part of our duties. That’s why they [investigators]go in and check. And he [the investigator]was not sure that when we left the topic Friday… he wasn’t quite sure. And maybe that was our problem with him. We didn’t know for sure what was going to happen. And we were trying to get the final say because the task force is just kind of run by the fire chief. So, they were in discussion with the Department of Health… everything kind of moves fluidly through these times. That’s why we just let them know but didn’t take any action. So, he [our investigator]assured us that he didn’t take any. He told them [Pineapples] that this [music]may not be allowed, but he [the musician]can continue that night. He hadn’t come in there and shut them down.”

On the opening of dedicated bars and nightclubs: [They]  have not cleared the list yet, but we, have been kind of lenient in what we’re going to classify as restaurants or even bars that serve food. We will treat them as restaurants and allow them to open. But I’m kind of reminding all of them that the primary purpose of your opening was as a restaurant. They need to be doing food service. And if they don’t, then they cannot open. Their opening will probably take place, hopefully on July 1st.

Warnings to venues about customers drinking and not eating: “[The public] can’t come in and sit there for four hours or six hours and say, ‘Wow, that was my dinner.’ We’ve got lots of people actually notice, you know, not us, but the public. And we get lots of reports. You know, ‘So many people are here, and they don’t look like they’re eating anything.’ So, we’re trying to balance the two right now. And we will go out and remind those [venues]that we get complaints about them. I think as I told them in my first letter, ‘the opening is allowed for restaurants, so act like a restaurant, not as a bar.’

Within an hour of my call, Takase issued a letter titled “Coronavirus Liquor Update #5.” In his statement sent out to live music venues, Takase proclaimed, “You will be allowed to have entertainment,” adding the social distancing guidelines that must be followed.

In addition to speaking with Takase, I also reached out to Maurice C. Messina, Mayor Kim’s executive assistant about the situation: “Our Rule does not prohibit live entertainment in restaurants. So, if the restaurant is complying with the social distancing requirements of the Governor’s 8th Supplementary, CDC guidelines, and regulatory and industry guidelines, live entertainment should be permitted unless the liquor license states otherwise. The Department of Liquor Control’s investigators will visit establishments, as they always have, to ensure the establishment is operating within the parameters of their license. In summary, our guidelines for allowing live entertainment is that the restaurant complies with social distancing and other requirements and guidelines. ” -Maurice C. Messina

Listen to the full audio interview with Director Gerald Takase here:

Steve Roby is a music photojournalist, an L.A. Times bestselling author, and a Big Island filmmaker. He’s been featured in the NY Times, Rolling Stone, and Billboard Magazine. Roby is also the Managing Editor of Big Island Music Magazine.

Featured image: Negative Space.


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