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Editorial: Strong action on virus needed now

In a drastic effort to limit the damage from the coronavirus outbreak, in Hawaii and across the nation, most of life’s everyday routines are being upended. And many societal norms are now on hold as health authorities advise against gatherings of more than 10 in workplaces, restaurants and other settings.

Further, amid the push to stay at home for at least the next two weeks, the lineup of government, business, school and tourist-attraction closures — as well as event postponements and cancellations — continues to grow by the hour.

While such capsizing is unsettling in small and large ways, it has grown necessary as we contend with the pandemic, which so far has resulted in COVID-19 cases detected in more than 140 countries.

Social distancing guidelines are in place with the aim of slowing virus spread so that fewer people need to seek treatment at any given time, thereby not overburdening the health care system. If the strategy — known in epidemiology as “flattening the curve” — is to succeed, everyone must do their part.

The next few weeks will serve as a critical window during which a surge in U.S. cases can be reduced with effective protective public health steps. The scale of these actions are unprecedented outside of wartime — so adjustment to the short-term disruptions will be needed, even as we brace for long-term consequences.

Retailers are cutting hours or temporarily shutting altogether; restaurants and bars will need to do likewise.

With key elements of the local economy grinding to a halt, Gov. David Ige has rightly issued a supplemental emergency proclamation that waives a one-week waiting period for people to apply for unemployment benefits. Also welcome on Tuesday was word that during these dire times, the state would aim to halt evictions and foreclosures for non-payment from people out of work, and is working with utility providers to prevent shutoff of basics such as electricity, water and gas.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell is canceling all events on city properties through April that would bring together more than 50 people indoors, and has strongly recommended that businesses set a similar limit in hotel ballrooms and other venues for entertainment in which people can space themselves out.

Some local restaurant owners have reduced the number of tables in their dining rooms, and increased cleaning efforts. But already, food chains such as Starbucks and McDonald’s are offering drive-through or takeout only. With the situation growing more stringent each day, with fewer people out in the community, expect that to become the norm for eateries.

At the federal level, the White House has expressed support for the idea of sending cash payments — based on wages — directly to Americans as part of an $850 billion stimulus proposal. In the islands, where a United Way report found that nearly half of all households are living paycheck-to-paycheck, consideration of such relief is welcome.

Immediate support here is within reach through Aloha United Way’s 2-1-1- program — a confidential, toll-free referral helpline — consisting of 300-plus nonprofit community agencies that team up in various ways to help address matters ranging from household financial emergencies to food insecurity.

More of this sort of work as well as an increase in local government aid to struggling small businesses and household safety-net programs, such as rental assistance, will be needed while the COVID-19 threat continues to loom large.

Nationwide, the count of cases has more than doubled in recent days, soaring past 5,600 on Tuesday. In Hawaii, the count has crossed into double digits. Still, the relatively low tally here is by no means an invitation to relax precautions, especially now that the state has its first “community spread” case.

Government leaders and first-responders are tasked with providing guidance and restrictions that aim to protect public health and safety. Success against COVID-19 will hinge on our voluntary participation.

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