At least some in the local restaurant and retail industries were uneasy with Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s announcement Tuesday that he will extend his stay-at-home, work-from-home order — aimed at blunting the spread of the coronavirus —by an entire month through May 31.
But Caldwell, in an interview with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser Wednesday, stressed that the monthlong extension will be just for the broader stay-at-home order, and that it’s very likely the rules will be relaxed within that period to allow activities to be open sooner if it is deemed safe for those activities to reopen.
While he announced the extension on Tuesday, Caldwell said he won’t sign an actual order about it until sometime next week. That order will have modifications including allowing a limited amount of car dealership and real estate transactions to be exempted, and might include golf courses, he said.
It’s possible that other activities, including smaller retail operations, also may be opened up within that one-month period, he said.
“They’ll be fewer things in the (new) order that will be restricted,” Caldwell said. “We continue to loosen up, maybe every couple weeks, month by month.”
The mayor’s original stay-at-home order, issued March 22 and set to expire at the end of April, requires most businesses to close to the public, leaving only essential businesses such as banks, hardware stores, supermarkets and other retailers that sell food, and restaurants (for takeout only).
The original order has been amended six times, and Caldwell noted that several of the changes involved easing restrictions to allow for certain activities to reopen including sit-down dining in medical facilities, online car sales for essential workers and fabric stores to sell material for masks.
Caldwell went through some of the criteria he’s using to determine what activities open and when, a process that’s apparently still in the works.
First, Caldwell said, four general safety criteria need to be met before determining if any additional activities can restart: a continuing trend of decreasing positive test cases; the ability of the island’s health care system to handle its caseload; the ability of the state Health Department to conduct testing and then contact tracing of positive cases; and “the social readiness” of the public, or its ability to practice social distancing, wear face coverings and take other precautions to guard against infection.
“So these criteria stay in place throughout the entire process of reopening our community up again, and they’re constantly looked at as we look at the next phase,” Caldwell said. “We’re constantly going back to this four-column criteria to make sure that we are in an OK position to do the next phase.”
From there, Caldwell said, he’s looking at a list of activities that could be reopened based on whether they are of low risk, medium risk or high risk of coming into contact with people who might be infected.
Reopening parks, a partial reopening of car dealerships and real estate activities are among activities considered low risk, Caldwell said. Opening up smaller businesses, provided they can assure safe social distancing, would be considered medium risk “in terms of contact intensity,” he said.
“We’re looking for things that are relatively low (risk),” the mayor said. “Retail could be something you could see opening up in May,” he said, adding that retailers would need to provide safeguards such as screens separating clerks from customers at the checkout counter.
He scoffed at the notion that what’s being allowed to open is being prioritized by its economic importance. “We’re picking these based on risk to health,” he said.
Caldwell said the list is being formulated based on several criteria including a recently released Johns Hopkins University study, “Public Health Principles for a Phased Reopening During COVID-19: Guidance for Governors.”
He and his top aides are also looking into other similar studies, as well as what types of activities other municipalities have allowed to reopen and whether they have been able to stay open without major instances of coronavirus infection, Caldwell said. They are also talking to a team of medical advisers, he said.
When the Star-Advertiser asked for a copy of the list to which he referred, Caldwell initially agreed. But administration officials later said there is no such list in writing at this point.
Deputy Managing Director Georgette Deemer said the list is still being formulated, and that city officials are still analyzing the resources Caldwell discussed.
“We’re using documents like (the Hopkins study) … for guidance as we develop a list of what kinds of things would qualify for opening based on the level of risk,” Deemer said.
Hawaii Restaurant Association member Victor Lim, who owns five McDonald’s restaurants, said he agrees that public health and safety should be the top priority when deciding what types of activities to reopen.
At the same time, Lim said, statistics appear to show the island and the state are faring well in terms of positive coronavirus cases, making it difficult for him to understand why Caldwell is calling for a 30-day extension of his stay-at-home order.
“Yes, we want to be safe,” he said. “But it doesn’t help when we are so ultraconservative.”
Lim said businesses need to have clarity about when they can reopen because it takes time to schedule employee shifts, ensure enough stock and equipment and notify the public.
When told Caldwell might open up other activities before May 31, Lim said “That would be wonderful! But that’s not what came across (at Tuesday’s news conference).”
Tina Yamaki, president of the Retail Merchants of Hawaii, said a lot of businesses determined to be “nonessential” under the stay-at-home order are wondering if they can stay closed for another month.
Caldwell’s 30-day extension was “a little jarring, a little concerning for some,” Yamaki said.
“They still have rent or lease to pay, they still have taxes, and they still have overhead costs to operate a business even though they are closed,” she said. “Without income coming in, it’s getting harder and harder to pay for those bills. Some of them are already on a very thin margin. The longer they stay closed, the question becomes are they going to be able to reopen or are they going to have to file for bankruptcy?”
Yamaki said that’s a dilemma being faced by not just smaller retailers, but major chain stores as well.
“We get it, we understand where the mayor is coming from on this, but it’s also how you survive at this point.”
Sherry Menor-McNamara, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii, said she can appreciate both the struggles being endured by businesses, some of which are making the decision to close permanently, as well as the need to ensure the public’s health.
“As stay-at-home orders are extended, we need more aggressive state and county action to provide economic stabilization and help businesses survive until they can reopen,” Menor-McNamara said.