With what Gov. David Ige described as the first signs of “the edge of community spread” of the coronavirus in Hawaii, government officials at the state and city levels took a series of unprecedented steps Monday to try to slow the outbreak’s speed here.
Ige issued a supplemental emergency proclamation that waives a one-week waiting period for people to apply for unemployment benefits and made other dramatic rule changes. He also announced that he had appointed Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara “incident commander” of Hawaii’s coronavirus response, replacing state Health Director Bruce Anderson.
State lawmakers, meanwhile, for the first time ever, announced they were recessing this year’s session of the state Legislature until further notice because of the spread of COVID-19.
At the city level, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell declared he was shutting down all events at Neal S. Blaisdell Center and all other indoor, city-owned facilities because the new coronavirus is more likely to be spread indoors than outdoors. He also announced that the city has agreed to provide an Iwilei building to the state for a “triage center” to house homeless people who may be infected by the coronavirus.
Ige on Monday also issued a supplemental emergency proclamation that waives the state’s one-week waiting period for unemployment insurance for those left out of a job due to COVID-19.
“We know that many in our community will not be working during much of this slowdown,” Ige said.
The supplemental emergency proclamation, effective through May 15, also “specifically addresses hoarding, and we do know that we can take action if we do believe that it is getting out of hand,” he said.
The first emergency declaration Ige issued specified that price gouging is illegal. On Monday he urged the public to report instances where they think merchants are engaging in the practice to the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs.
The supplemental proclamation also suspends provisions of the state public-meetings law known as the the Sunshine Law, which requires open meetings and hearings. The idea is “to the extent necessary to enable boards to conduct business in person or through remote technology without holding meetings open to the public,” according to the proclamation.
Also at the news conference, Hilton Raethel, president and CEO of the Healthcare Association of Hawaii, said the Department of Health posted a list of places on its website where the public can get screened for the coronavirus. However, those wanting a test will need a physician’s order to be screened.
He said patients seeking a test would be asked whether they have a fever, cough or hard time breathing, as well as whether they have been in contact with someone with COVID-19 or whether they have been in an area with a known outbreak.
He said places where people can get screened in Hawaii include 27 sites on Oahu, four on Kauai, six on Maui and five on Hawaii island.
“We will continue to monitor these sites and provide additional resources as the need becomes necessary,” Raethel said.
Hara in charge
Hara’s appointment followed a conference call with President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, in which they urged officials to follow their responses to natural disasters.
Hara, who serves as both director of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency and state adjutant general, emphasized, “The National Guard is not taking over.”
But Guard “planners” are working with their counterparts at the state Health Department and state Department of Transportation for how to respond in advance so the state doesn’t play catch-up to the potential community spread of the coronavirus, Hara said.
That includes discussing plans to conduct screenings of passengers of airline flights and cruise ships as they arrive, he said.
State lawmakers took the unprecedented step Monday of recessing this year’s session of the state Legislature until further notice because of the spread of COVID-19.
The House and Senate voted unanimously to approve Senate Concurrent Resolution 242, which recesses the legislative session for at least three days, and might involve a pause in the session of eight weeks or more. All scheduled hearings are being canceled.
The resolution cites guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that urges the public to refrain from gathering in groups of more than 50 people for the next eight weeks to limit the spread of COVID-19.
The session will resume subject to the call of Senate President Ron Kouchi and House Speaker Scott Saiki, and lawmakers expect the session will resume where it left off when the risk of spreading the coronavirus has died down.
“The members of the Legislature are very concerned about public health and safety, and that is why we decided to suspend the legislative session,” Saiki said.
This year’s session is about half-finished. It began Jan. 15 and had been scheduled to adjourn for the year on May 7.
City facility closures
The city is canceling all events on city properties through April that would bring together more than 50 people indoors and strongly recommending to businesses to not permit gatherings of over 50 people at hotel ballrooms and other venues for entertainment, Caldwell said.
Caldwell made several announcements Monday afternoon during a news conference about city measures aimed at limiting the spread of the coronavirus through social distancing.
He said Hanauma Bay also will be closed through April 30 because visitors are required to watch a short film in a theater before going to the bay. Among other closures: all Royal Hawaiian Band concerts, today’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Lei Day events and various Department of Parks and Recreation events including Easter egg hunts, archery tournaments, swim meets and the People’s Open Markets.
The Honolulu Zoo and most other outside facilities will remain open.
Meanwhile, Caldwell said the city has found a location to house homeless people who may be infected by the coronavirus.
Caldwell said the location is on Kaaahi Street off Dillingham Boulevard and has 26 units, which means the capacity can be at least doubled. There haven’t been any known cases of coronavirus in Honolulu’s homeless population, he said.
The city purchased the property for $9 million last year and will turn the building into a replacement site for the Sand Island Treatment Center, geared to help those with drug and alcohol addictions, in the future.
TheBus and Handi-Van schedules, as well as refuse pickup, will continue.
Honolulu City Council Chairman Ikaika Anderson said the nine-member body will continue with its plan to meet Wednesday. One of its agenda items will be Resolution 20-71, allowing Council members to participate from remote locations and be counted as “present” at meetings. That would allow them to participate in discussions and vote on bills from outside Council chambers.
The Council also will take up on final reading Bill 35, which gives Caldwell and future mayors the ability to tap a $120 million fiscal stability fund, also known as a “rainy day fund,” to combat the adverse impacts of the outbreak.