University of Hawaii Maui College nursing student Kathryn Moreno administers a shot of the Moderna vaccine at the school on Jan. 23 in the early months of the vaccine rollout. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

With the first year of the pandemic in the rearview mirror, many thought 2021 might signal the end of the nightmare, or at least a chance to bring it under control.

Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccines, rolled out in late December 2020, were the first of what health officials hoped would be multiple tools to fight COVID-19.

In a way, vaccines did bring back a sense of normalcy — as vaccination rates went up and cases went down, restrictions were lifted, mass travel resumed and sports and other largescale events returned. However, it also created a whole new world, where vaccination status held the key to employment and access, sparking backlash among people still skeptical about the shot’s effects.

Now, with 2021 drawing to a close and cases once again on the rise, here’s a look back on the major events of the year, many of which continued to be defined by COVID-19:

Vaccines roll out

During a “Take Back the Beach” rally on April 10, a sign on Wailea Beach draws attention to officials’ emphasis on “quality over quantity” when it comes to tourism management. Residents staged the rally to protest overtourism. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Shortly after the first health care workers in Maui County got their shots in late December, the state Department of Health began a campaign in earnest to get people vaccinated.

Health care and frontline workers, as well as kupuna living in the community and in care homes, were prioritized for the shot. Lines of cars piled up at the University of Hawaii Maui College’s vaccine clinic in January. Maui Memorial Medical Center’s main lobby was a flurry of activity as people passed through for their first doses.

Steadily the rollout expanded to include younger individuals, people with high-risk medical conditions and essential workers who hadn’t qualified in earlier phases.

At one point demand was so high that Maui Health, which runs Maui Memorial, expanded vaccinations to a ballroom at the Grand Wailea.

Initially, health officials were worried about not having enough supply. But as more people got vaccinated, demand began to plateau, and officials went from asking people to wait their turn to urging anyone to come.

Social studies teacher Scott Clarke gives senior Shandon Obregon a virtual fist bump in his classroom Thursday. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

County and state officials also began requiring proof of vaccination to bypass travel quarantine, to dine indoors or to continue working at their in-person jobs. Testing or exemptions for religious or medical reasons have been allowed in lieu of vaccination in some cases.

The vaccine mandates sparked frequent protests by residents who said the vaccines needed more studies and that the requirements were a violation of their rights.

Others, however, said the rules were crucial for stemming the spread and allowing businesses, schoosl and other functions to continue. In December, the omicron variant intensified the pressure, spreading quickly, sparking record-high case counts and pushing officials to advocate for booster shots.

As of Friday, 74.2 percent of the total population statewide had completed their vaccination, including 77 percent in Honolulu County, 71 percent in Kauai County, 67 percent in Maui County and 66 percent in Hawaii County, according to state Department of Health data.

Tourism surges

Sign-wavers line Kaahumanu Avenue in Kahului on March 20 during the Maui portion of the event billed as the Worldwide Rally for Freedom in protest of mask mandates and other coronavirus-related measures. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Freshly vaccinated and itching to travel after a year cooped up during the pandemic, visitors streamed into Maui, long the second-most popular destination in the state but now proving even more attractive due to its relatively low case counts.

Tourism numbers surged over the summer, overwhelming Maui residents who’d gotten used to empty beaches and deserted roads during the early days of the pandemic. Visitor arrivals to Maui grew month over month and were soon rivaling those of Oahu, which typically sees far more tourists. In July, Maui fell just short of pre-pandemic levels with 282,715 visitors, compared to the 307,834 visitors the island saw in July 2019.

While businesses welcomed the income after the financial struggles of 2020, others felt it was too much, too soon. The near-total shutdown of the visitor industry had sparked hopes that Maui had a chance to rethink tourism and its impacts to the island, and its fast return felt like business as usual to some.

Mayor Michael Victorino asked airlines to reduce their seats. Residents staged “take back the beach” rallies. The Maui County Council cut funding for the Maui Visitors Bureau and passed bills aimed at curbing overtourism, including a moratorium on new visitor lodgings.

A surge in cases combined with the end of the summer season cooled the visitor boom slightly, but the debate over tourism management plays on.

New Maui Police Department Chief John Pelletier is sworn in by 2nd Circuit Court Judge Kirstin Hamman on Dec. 15. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Back to school

After a year of watching students struggle through virtual learning, the state Department of Education decided to return to full in-person classes for the start of the 2021-22 academic school year.

Public schools had slowly been bringing students back. In February, Maui High School welcomed all of its staff and about 650 students to campus, with about 1,400 opting to continue learning at home. In March, Baldwin High School allowed seniors to come back in person, with about 750 choosing to return.

With cases more under control, seniors in 2021 were able to have in-person graduation — a step-up from the drive-thru ceremonies of 2020 — albeit with strict rules on total guests, musical performances and physical distancing. The University of Hawaii Maui College held the only in-person graduation ceremonies in the UH system.

Schools were prepared to reopen for face-to-face learning in August when the delta variant fueled another surge in COVID-19 cases. With little time to reverse course, officials forged ahead with their original plans under a variety of precautions. The state also began requiring government employees, including public school teachers, to be vaccinated or subject to regular COVID-19 testing.

Rain and floodwaters flow through a washed-out section of a bridge on Peahi Road in Haiku on March 9. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Cases began declining in the fall, and while students and teachers had to endure occasional quarantine due to exposure, schools did not have to close or revert to full distance learning for the semester.

However, with winter break coming to an end, schools are once again facing a similar dilemma — a spike in cases, this time due to the omicron variant. While the Hawaii State Teachers Association has been critical of DOE’s plans, the department said it remains committed to returning to full in-person learning for the second semester, pointing to the benefits for students and the safety measures in place.

Sports make a comeback

Organized youth sports and activities started to come back in September, but with several health and safety mitigation measures in place, after about two years of cancellations and postponements due the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wearing masks, taking temperature checks, filling out health forms and social distancing had become a normal protocol for kids playing club sports.

However, the state Department of Education in coordination with league directors mandated in August that athletes and coaches must be vaccinated or show weekly negative COVID-19 test results in order to participate in Maui Interscholastic League sports, along with delaying the season until Sept. 24.

Some youth athletes and their families, as well as coaches, were faced with a challenging decision of whether to participate or not. As a result, rosters were naturally much smaller this year.

Sign-wavers took to the streets in October to protest the vaccine mandates that not only impacted employees in various industries, but their children’s ability to play sports.

Nonetheless, the MIL eventually resumed this fall, but with modifications — at first not allowing spectators and later allowing a few family members per athlete into each outdoor event.

Before 2021 was up, student-athletes were finally able to compete in the MIL championships after abbreviated seasons as well as travel for state championship tournaments, which were held on Oahu and Hawaii island.

Maui also hosted professional and amateur athletes at the Xterra World Championship races in Kapalua after two years of cancellations. Other higher-level sporting events such the Maui Jim Maui Invitational basketball tournament were held off-island again to mitigate any spread through large gatherings and traveling, though the college women’s basketball tournament returned to the Valley Isle at Lahaina Civic Center in December.

Delta and omicron

Just as travel was making a comeback, a new, highly transmissible variant of the coronavirus began ramping up cases again.

The delta variant was first detected in February in India, where it sparked a public health crisis and quickly became the dominant variant in other parts of the world. The first case was confirmed in Hawaii in June; by late July, health officials were blaming the variant for another surge as Hawaii saw hundreds of daily new cases for the first time since January.

The timing couldn’t have been worse. Rising vaccination rates and declining case counts had generated optimism and prompted state and county officials to roll back some restrictions, including allowing fully vaccinated travelers to bypass pre-travel testing and quarantine.

Hospitalizations rose, including at Maui Memorial Medical Center, which in August was caring for a record-high 40 patients with the virus.

In September, Maui County began requiring proof of vaccination to enter “high-risk businesses” such as restaurants, bars and gyms, in the wake of a similar program on Oahu. The county also curbed social gathering sizes and capacity limits for commercial tours.

Cases were trending back downhill when the omicron variant was detected in November in South Africa, where it spread rapidly. It wasn’t long before omicron made its way to Oahu in December, and later to the Neighbor Islands.

While early studies indicate omicron may be less severe than other variants, state and county officials are still worried it will tax local health care resources because of how quickly it spreads. On Thursday, the state reported 3,484 new confirmed and probable cases, the most it had seen in one day since the start of the pandemic.

Rainstorms packed a punch

Maui endured two devastating storms this year that brought torrential rains and flooding, leaving behind property and home damage, downed utility poles, washed out roads and polluted shorelines in their wake.

From March 8 to 18, Haiku residents felt the brunt of severe heavy rains that caused landslides and flash floods, which swept away homes, vehicles, appliances and other belongings.

Multiple bridges found within areas off Haiku Road, East and West Kuiaha Roads, Kauhikoa Road, Kaupakalua Road, Pakanu Road, Ulumalu Road, Peahi Road and others that provided property access were also damaged or swept away after rivers overflowed, leaving families and individuals stuck on one side.

In May, President Joe Biden approved disaster aid for Maui County that provided federal funding for 75 percent of about $8 million in damages.

Later in the year, a rainstorm in December came from the other direction, bringing torrential rains and flooding to neighborhoods in Central, South and Upcountry Maui.

The unusual weather system, called a Kona low storm, had dumped nearly 20 inches of rain in parts of the state over the weekend, and thousands of Hawaiian Electric customers across Maui were left without power for consecutive days.

Many residents noted how they had to conserve water or how they lost refrigerated and frozen foods. Even weeks later, Upper Kula neighborhoods continued to have boil water advisories after the water system’s pipes were compromised and contaminated.

South Kihei Road and other infrastructure were undermined; churches, homes and businesses had been swamped with thick layers of mud and debris; and hundreds of trees were reported by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources as “flattened” due to harsh winds and rain on the slopes of Haleakala.

In Central Maui, Wailuku River was fed by the storm, pushing boulders down the streambed and cracking the main Waihee Ditch siphon pipe that supplies 70 percent of the county’s drinking water.

Gov. David Ige signed a statewide emergency declaration on Dec. 6 that has now been extended through Feb. 8.

Attempts to recall mayor

An initial attempt to recall Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino ended up falling more than 20,000 signatures short as petitioners tried to oust the mayor over the COVID-19 vaccine mandates and possible lockdowns, as well as the administration’s transparency during the pandemic and other grievances that included water needs and housing issues.

Many Maui County residents had grown frustrated over two years of ever-changing pandemic-related policies and strict health and safety protocols that changed the way in which schools and businesses operate.

Public officials like Victorino received major pushback, and in late October a group of protesters initiated a mayoral recall campaign. Victorino said in response that he was disappointed but backed his administration and supported the organizers’ rights to express themselves and launch the recall.

Organizers had 30 days, or until Nov. 20, to collect 21,586 signatures of support, which accounted for 20 percent of Maui County registered voters in the last general election — a requirement under the Maui County Charter.

Throughout the 30 days, pop-up signature locations were seen islandwide and petition collectors were posted at several local businesses.

However, when the deadline arrived and the County Clerk’s Office worked to verify the signatures, only 3,211 signatures were submitted. Of those, 1,647 were deemed invalid and 1,564 were valid.

Under the charter, the group had another 20 days, or until Dec. 29, to file a supplemental petition with more signatures. The County Clerk’s Office said earlier this week that it was expecting to receive the signatures soon and did not yet have a count. The office will have 10 more days to examine and verify the signatures.

New fire and police chiefs

The year 2021 brought plenty of change, including new leadership to Maui County’s fire and police departments.

Deputy Fire Chief Brad Ventura was selected unanimously in September to be Maui County’s new fire chief, while former Las Vegas police Capt. John Pelletier was approved unanimously by the Maui Police Commission in November to be Maui’s next police chief.

Ventura was selected to serve as deputy chief in August 2018 and had been acting fire chief since Fire Chief David Thyne’s retirement at the end of June following a 34-year career.

Ventura is a veteran of nearly 20 years in the Fire Department, starting his fire career in 2002 with an engine company at the Kahului Fire Station before being promoted to Firefighter II in 2007 and working on a Kahului rescue crew. In 2011, he was promoted to Firefighter III and was assigned to the Health and Safety Bureau, then worked as a driver for Ladder 3 in Lahaina, before joining the hazmat crew in Kahului. He was promoted to captain in 2015 and worked in an engine company at the Napili Fire Station.

His appointment took effect Oct. 1.

After a monthslong search, the Maui Police Commission voted to select Pelletier as the finalist among five candidates on Oct. 5. His selection was finalized in November, and he was sworn in on Dec. 15 alongside his deputy, Charles Hank III, a colleague from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.

Pelletier, the only non-Maui resident of the top five candidates, is a third-generation police officer and 22-year veteran of the Las Vegas department. He had been commander of the Major Violator/Narcotics Bureau since January 2020, following earlier leadership assignments including heading the Convention Center Area Command that includes the Las Vegas strip.

Former Maui Police Chief Tivoli Faaumu retired on May 1 after a nearly 36-year career with MPD.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at [email protected] Dakota Grossman can be reached at [email protected]

Scott Suda (foreground) and Noah Abdill clear mud from the South Kihei Road entrance of the Luana Kai on Dec. 6. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Today’s breaking news and more in your inbox