Gov. David Ige announced Wednesday that the state will slowly begin to reopen the economy in phases, starting essentially Friday with a limited number of businesses suggested by the county mayors.
“Hawaii, we are almost there,” Ige declared at a briefing held at the Capitol. “We are beating the odds, and there is light at the end of the tunnel.”
Ige said the state has seen six or fewer cases of COVID-19 per day in the last 10 days — including four new cases Wednesday — and it appears “the curve has been flattened,” prompting the easing of restrictions.
However, the governor cautioned that a second wave of the virus is a real possibility and he might have to reimpose restrictive mandates if a surge in new cases arises.
The businesses being reopened with prescribed limitations include certain real estate services, new and used car and truck dealerships, automated service providers, mobile service providers, services provided on a one-on-one basis, and public and private golf courses.
In deciding to enter the new phase of recovery, Ige said he not only felt confident in the state’s ability to test for the virus, but in the health care system’s ability to manage new cases.
Ige said he and the mayors will look to scale back further mandates “in a cautious, safe and coordinated manner” while considering the latest data, science and guidance from health advisers.
Ige also announced a new statewide relief program for those who are self-employed or are independent contractors, called the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, or PUA.
Through the federal CARES Act, PUA extends eligibility to individuals who normally do not qualify for traditional unemployment benefits, like those who work for themselves or who are gig workers.
The program can be accessed at pua.hawaii.gov and is accepting preapplications for processing around May 15.
Ige also announced that Payroll Protection Program (PPP) payments to businesses will not be subject to the state general excise tax (GET). He said this will help small businesses maintain their payrolls and cover some operational expenses.
Additionally, he said, the state Department of Taxation would be asking the Legislature to allow the state to exclude PPP loans from state income taxes. This is expected to provide some relief to the more than 11,000 small businesses that have received the emergency loans, he said.
Earlier Wednesday, the state Department of Health said four new coronavirus cases bring the state’s overall tally to 613, of which 516 have recovered.
The state’s coronavirus death toll stands at 16, unchanged from Tuesday. Eleven of the deaths have been on Oahu and five on Maui.
Lt. Gov. Josh Green cautioned that while Hawaii has one of the lowest mortality rates in the U.S., the state may well experience more deaths because there are people still in the hospital fighting for their lives.
Health Director Bruce Anderson said that as the state moves into a new phase of recovery, the Health Department is preparing a plan to accelerate its contact tracing capacity and will employ a network of private physicians, schools, businesses, community health centers, clinics and clinical laboratories.
In addition, the state will use a new digital tool that will help enhance contact tracing investigations, helping to follow up with people who’ve had close contact with a positive case. People will be able to use the computer application to directly input information on their health status to the Health Department, Anderson said.
The state and the counties also have identified and secured isolation and quarantine facilities on Kauai, Oahu, Maui, Molokai, Lanai and Hawaii island.
“I’m very pleased we have options for those who are living in situations where they may not be able to isolate themselves,” Anderson said.
Shortly before Ige’s news conference, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell released a list of the business types that may reopen with restrictions:
>> Certain real estate services, with all real property sales and management activities accomplished by remote/electronic means whenever possible.
>> Sales and leasing by new and used car and truck dealerships, but no test driving with sales agents is permitted. The number of appointments needs to be limited to comply with social-distancing requirements.
>> Automated service providers that don’t require interactions with customers, such as fully automated car washes.
>> Mobile service businesses that do not require interaction with customers, such as mobile pet grooming and car washing/detailing businesses.
>> Services provided on a one-on-one basis, such as private tutoring and musical instrument lessons, as long as they comply with social distancing requirements.
>> Public and private golf courses operating under guidelines set forth in the Professional Golfers’ Association’s “Procedures for Reintroduction to the Game and Business of Golf.”
Gravesite visits are also being added as an essential activity.
Maui Mayor Michael Victorino also announced Wednesday that all golf courses, select county parks and select county beach parks will reopen Friday as part of the first phase of an easing of COVID-19 restrictions.
Earlier in the day, U.S. Rep. Ed Case, D-Hawaii, said he supports only a deliberate and systematic opening of the economy, and it appears Hawaii’s state and county leaders are on the right track.
“I think it’s dangerous to open prematurely, and we need to err on the side of caution. The consequence of not getting it right is going to be far worse than had we not done it more deliberately,” Case told the COVID Care Conversation on the Honolulu Star-Advertiser Facebook page.
Case said any reopening should embrace five components: social distancing, testing, contact tracing, isolating the sick and adequate health care capability.
“I want things to reopen as fast as possible as much as anybody in this country,” he said. “The reality is this is a public health epidemic and a crisis, and I think we have to apply a public health solution to it.”
If not, Hawaii’s economy could be damaged much more in the long run, he said.
In the meantime, the congressman said he would be fighting for more economic aid for those struggling financially.