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State senators slam Hawaii officials over COVID-19 response

  • BRUCE ASATO / JULY 2018
                                State Sen. Donna Kim

    BRUCE ASATO / JULY 2018

    State Sen. Donna Kim

  • STAR-ADVERTISER / FEBRUARY 2018
                                Linda Chu Takayama, Gov. David Ige’s chief of staff

    STAR-ADVERTISER / FEBRUARY 2018

    Linda Chu Takayama, Gov. David Ige’s chief of staff

Frustrated key state senators Monday blasted Gov. David Ige’s chief of staff and some state department heads over a myriad of coronavirus-­related responses, including admitted lax tracking of arriving visitors, idled state workers not helping with backlogged unemployment claims and the prospect 631 nonessential state workers could join the army of unemployed private and gig workers in just over two weeks, when rents and mortgages are typically due.

Linda Chu Takayama, Ige’s chief of staff, was unable to answer many of the pointed questions from the six members of the state Senate Special Committee on COVID-19, adding to their frustrations.

Takayama was scheduled to testify for 30 minutes. Instead she endured nearly 90 minutes of questions that she was largely unable to answer to the senators’ satisfaction.

“It’s just excuses,” said state Sen. Donna Kim (D, Kalihi Valley-Moanalua-­Halawa) in slamming Takayama. “We keep getting these excuses. The only power we have is to ask you folks these questions. We’re not even in session, so we can’t even pass a law. … It’s not acceptable. … People’s lives are in jeopardy.”

Among the questions Takayama was unable to satisfactorily answer:

>> Is the state likely to furlough 706 idled, nonessential state workers who are still receiving salaries? (Ryker Wada, director of the state Department of Human Resources Development, later told senators that the number had been reduced to 631.)

“At this point we’re not talking about it,” Takayama said. “I can’t discuss that right now.”

>> Why has Ige not written a letter to President Donald Trump asking Trump to halt all nonessential airline travel to the islands at a time when cruise liners are not allowed to offload passengers?

State Sen. Kurt Fevella (R, Ewa Beach-Iroquois Point) said the spread of the new coronavirus — and the community’s frustrations over tourists flouting stay-at-home and 14-day quarantine rules — can be helped by clamping down on arriving tourists, immediately putting them back on a plane if they don’t have proper lodging and tracking them where they claim they are staying.

The issue, Fevella said, is “airport, airport, airport, airport.”

>> Why has Ige not asked the military to halt the scheduled twice-a-year Rim of the Pacific Maritime Exercise, which is scheduled for June and July — let alone asked all the participating countries to keep their sailors, aviators and Marines on board their ships, instead of fanning out into hotels?

>> Why is no one tracking tourists who claim they are staying at vacation rentals — and how are members of the Hawaii Tourism Authority verifying that tourists are actually remaining in their hotels?

“It’s a gap in our government,” Takayama said.

>> Why does a web-based app the state paid $65,000 to develop in response to the coronavirus pandemic — called safetravels.hawaii.gov — not being used on visitors’ cellphones or to identify the movements of tourists who are instructed to honor 14-day quarantine and stay-at-home orders? The app, instead, asks visitors to voluntarily identify where they are supposed to be staying in quarantine.

Takayama said the app was developed to help officials at Hawaii airports notify arriving passengers of the new rules and not to track their movements. She said it “takes a little bit of time” to adapt it for use on Apple and Android cellphones.

Kim responded, “It seems like we’re spending a lot of money and it’s not doing what we expect it to do.”

State Sen. Michelle Kidani (D, Mililani-Waikele­-Kunia) said the entire effort to get tourists to self-quarantine and follow stay-at-home orders in both hotels and private rentals really sends the message, “Hey, we’re watching you but we’re really not.”

>> What are the state’s plans after April 30 when the “stay at home” directive is scheduled to expire — and how does the administration plan to get Hawaii’s economy back on track once the pandemic is over?

Kidani said the administration appeared to not have a “Plan A … (let alone) a Plan B.”

>> Why didn’t state department heads take up the senators’ offer three weeks ago to use 40 of their staff members to help process an avalanche of unemployment claims, which state Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz (D, Wahiawa-Whitmore-Mililani Mauka) said would have required only four hours of training.

At the same time, unemployed workers are complaining that their unemployment claims are not being processed because “nobody’s answering the phone,” Dela Cruz said.

Takayama said that 18 state workers have been redeployed to the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations to try to unclog the system, but she could not say what departments they came from.

“You made all these decisions on your own,” Kidani told Takayama.

Under questioning, Takayama acknowledged that “the buck stops” with her. She then quickly backtracked and said she is also working with others in the administration.

Correction: The app called safetravels.hawaii.gov that was developed in response to the coronavirus pandemic cost the state $65,000, not $650,000 as was reported in an earlier version of this story and in Tuesday’s print edition.

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