While retail stores across the county now have the go-ahead to reopen, state leaders remain in discussions about the best way to proceed with lifting further COVID-19 public health restrictions. For weeks the state has reported low daily numbers of new cases of infection consistent with a “flattened curve,” meaning the spread of COVID-19 has been slowed, which is the goal of social distancing and stay-at-home rules.
On May 8, for the first time since mid-March, the Department of Health reported a “lull” of no new cases in the state. Since then, as of press time, the state has found no more than three new cases a day. But, warned Governor Ige, “We’ll lose all of our progress and the sacrifices you’ve all made if we see a surge in COVID-19 cases. All of your work will have been meaningless.”
Like decision-makers around the globe, Ige is faced with the task of balancing the risk of COVID-19 infections with the need to resuscitate an economy that has screeched to a halt and left many out of work.
“People need to go back to work. Businesses need to start up again,” said Ige during a May 11 press conference. “We need to move forward and we are taking these first important steps, but please remember this will be a careful process. Your health is our highest priority as we make these decisions, and if we see a recurrence of COVID-19 we may need to put some restrictions back in place.”
Between the governor, state Department of Health, Hawai‘i Emergency Management Agency, and the state House Committee on COVID-19, however, there is not yet a consensus on how to best make decisions of when to lift or increase restrictions.
During a May 11 meeting of the House Committee on COVID-19, House Speaker Scott Saiki (D-Kaka‘ako), Bank of Hawai‘i president Peter Ho, and HIEMA director Kenneth Hara, lamented a lack of leadership from the governor and stressed the importance of defining the metrics that will be used to determine which businesses can reopen, and when.
If rules are too lenient, Hara said, the state runs the risk of a second wave of infection and business closures, and thus a stunted economic recovery. On the other hand, “If we let the economy go the way it’s going, I feel there’ll be significant civil unrest that could lead to civil disobedience and, worst case, civil disturbance and rioting,” said Hara, adding that he hoped to get past this “friction point” to arrive at solid public guidance on when and how to move from one COVID-19 threat level to the next.
“There is disagreement on the specific metrics that should be included at each level to dictate that decision,” said Saiki. “We cannot continue to just put this off because of the internal disagreements that are happening.” Saiki suggested inviting the governor to a future video meeting so the committee could impress upon the governor “the need for him to basically start making decisions and to provide direction on this.”
“We’re dealing with days not weeks, and certainly not months. If we don’t demonstrate leadership to our community we’re really leaving them in a lurch,” said Ho. “The outcome to that is just reduced economic output and we’re already at a pretty lousy level.”
Get it Done Right, Fast
The types of metrics being considered include the capacity of the health care system, numbers of recent cases, testing availability, and the ability of the state to conduct contact tracing. In addition to disagreements over which specific numbers should trigger more stringent or lenient social distancing rules, Gov. Ige also said there is a difference in opinion regarding flexibility of these metrics.
“I think the disagreement just circles around what specific metrics would be considered [to allow for lifting or adding restrictions] and whether there should be a hard and fast objective rule or whether there should be discretion involved, and I advocate for discretion,” said Gov. Ige during the May 11 press conference.
Carl Bonham, the executive director of the University of Hawai‘i Economic Research Organization, told the House Committee on COVID-19 that while it’s obvious that the state needs to get its reopening and recovery plan “right” so as to prevent repeated rounds of stay-at-home orders and unrest, it also needs to get it done soon. Even with gradual reopening, Bonham’s projections show a state unemployment rate “well into the double digits by the end of the year,” causing an extended period of hardship that will lead to further health and social costs.
“What’s imperative right now is that we finalize and operationalize a unified state-county plan for reopening both the local and the tourism economy so we can begin to address the health and social costs of Hawai‘i’s residents,” said Bonham.
“We’ve never faced anything more critical than this in the state. If we don’t get this right, and get it right now, the prospects are really dismal and the social unrest is one piece of that,” he said. “We have to get it right but we also have to move as quickly as we possibly can.”
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