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Editorial: Protect Hawaii’s economy and health from coronavirus

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                                Tents were put up at Queen’s Medical Center next to the emergency entrance to prepare for possible coronavirus patients on Thursday.


    Tents were put up at Queen’s Medical Center next to the emergency entrance to prepare for possible coronavirus patients on Thursday.

In Hawaii, storm preparations kick into high gear when the sun is still shining and the breeze mild. When Hurricane Lane made its anticipated turn toward Hawaii in August 2018, emergency proclamations allowed officials to respond with greater speed.

Today, a similar sort of pragmatic yet urgent prep is underway to contend with the coronavirus outbreak.

On the mainland, there are upwards of 1,700 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and President Donald Trump has declared a national emergency. In Hawaii, as of late Friday, there were two confirmed cases, and 27 individuals were self-monitoring at home while communicating daily with Department of Health officials.

It’s essential to heed the urging of health authorities to take action to avoid COVID-19 community spread in crowd settings. Along those lines, the University of Hawaii and others are prudently following the lead of mainland schools in a switch to online classes after spring break.

And in an effort to minimize the pandemic’s reach, a fast-growing lineup of event cancellations, postponements and closures are in place — unfortunate but necessary. Among these: The annual Merrie Monarch Festival is on hold, as is the 100th Kamehameha Schools Song Contest, and all UH sporting events are canceled. While such action can be heartbreaking for all involved, the altruistic attention to this evolving public health threat is lauded.

To slow the spread of COVID-19 — and fend off the possibility of overwhelming the health-care response — federal officials are increasingly advising people to adopt “social distancing” tactics or stay home, when possible. While that’s good for public health, it’s bad for Hawaii’s tourism-dependent economy.

Encouraged by 2019’s record-breaking 10 million visitors and projections for a similar arrival count this year, just two months ago, the 2020 Hawaii Legislature was sizing up spending plans based, in part, on projections that state tax collections would grow by some 4% to more than $7.4 billion in the fiscal year that ends June 30.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus is rapidly nixing that sunny outlook. The University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization issued a report last week that predicted the pandemic would cause visitor arrivals to drop by more than 7% this year, and more than 6,000 jobs in Hawaii would be eliminated before employment begins to rebound.

In an unsettling harbinger, the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations last week said that first-time unemployment claims have been on the rise in recent weeks. That detail was shared in the inaugural meeting of the House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness, so that group of community leaders must move swiftly toward steps that can boost economic activity.

One step should involve pumping more state money into shovel- ready public works construction projects, especially for much-needed upgrades at school campuses. Also, the state should consider imposing a sort of community workforce agreement that prioritizes hiring of local workers who have lost employment due to the unfolding economic downturn.

At the federal level, earlier this month a $8.3 billion emergency spending package was approved by Congress and signed by Trump, with Hawaii securing $4.5 million for much-needed public health response efforts, such as laboratory testing to identify new COVID-19 cases.

On Friday, the president added as much as $50 billion for state and local governments by declaring the national emergency. And later in the day, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a deal with the Trump administration for a much-needed aid package from Congress that would provide free tests to confirm coronavirus infections, sick pay for workers and bolster food programs.

Hawaii’s U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz was among those pushing for free testing, reasoning in a written statement: “Testing should be free and available for everyone who needs it. We can’t stop this outbreak if we don’t know how it’s spreading.” An infusion of funding is necessary to help set right the federal government’s initial slow rollout of testing.

As is the case with a hurricane headed in our direction, it’s better to face a looming threat over-prepared rather than under-prepared. While the scope of COVID-19’s threat remains largely unknown, it’s painfully clear that the mysterious virus will deliver a grim public-health toll and a hard economic hit. Rumblings about recession here and across the U.S. are growing louder by the day.

Hawaii’s congressional delegation, state leaders and first-responders must be tenacious in taking actions that keep people safe and stoke public confidence. It will take the marshalling of our collective abilities and talents to effectively shield against the spread of the coronavirus, weather its worst effects and rally economic recovery, sooner rather than later.

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