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Delay in reopening Hawaii’s economy could lead to rioting, Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara warns

  • BRUCE ASATO / MARCH 16
                                Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, incident commander for Hawaii’s coronavirus response, warned a state House committee Monday about the possibility of rioting in Hawaii if “we let the economy go the way it’s going.”

    BRUCE ASATO / MARCH 16

    Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, incident commander for Hawaii’s coronavirus response, warned a state House committee Monday about the possibility of rioting in Hawaii if “we let the economy go the way it’s going.”

The head of Hawaii’s coronavirus response team said Monday that further delays in reopening Hawaii’s economy — especially to tourism — could result in rioting.

Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, incident commander of Hawaii’s coronavirus response, warned, “If we let the economy go the way it’s going, I feel there will be significant civil unrest that could lead to civil disobedience and, worst case, civil disturbance and rioting.”

“At some point we need to accept risks,” Hara told lawmakers. “We’ve got to accept the fact that people will become infected” and test Hawaii’s health care system “without exceeding the ICU (intensive care unit) and ventilator capacity.”

Gov. David Ige, who will ultimately decide the timing of reopening much of the economy, downplayed the comment.

“As the general always does, he is always planning for the worst-case scenario,” Ige said at an online news conference. “I do not believe that we will get to civil unrest here in our community, just judging by the public’s response to mandates and, more importantly, everyone doing their part, taking their responsibility, social- distancing and really helping us flatten the curve.”

The coronavirus pandemic slammed the brakes on a red-hot island economy that had one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation but now has one of the highest.

Ige implemented a 14-day quarantine for all air travelers that has effectively shut down tourism, the state’s No. 1 industry.

Even if tourism begins to rebound in July, Carl Bonham, executive director of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization, estimated that Hawaii will still have an unemployment rate “well into the double digits by the end of the year. That extended period of economic hardship brings with it a whole host of health and social costs that we’re beginning to look at more carefully.”

Raymond Vara, president and CEO of Hawaii Pacific Health, said the committee needs to show the community “some pretty proactive decisions being made in short order.”

“I think I can speak from a public health standpoint when I say we understand the risks, we understand the capacities of the ICU beds and the ventilators,” Vara said. “But I actually think that we’ve crossed the tipping point where the risk is much greater on the long-term impact of our community if we don’t begin to roll out a detailed plan in pretty short order that not only has the different phases of escalation of reopening the community, but also some tentative timelines in which we intend to do so.”

Hara also said two clusters of people who became ill with COVID-19 in Hawaii involved parties where people apparently ignored warnings to engage in social distancing and avoid social gatherings.

In testimony Monday before the House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness, Hara described for the committee two primary mistakes that people have made that have led to the spread of infection.

“If you look at the main clusters that we’ve had in Hawaii, the big ones that people didn’t follow is staying home when you’re sick, and No. 2 is, they were having parties,” he told the committee.

“Two of the clusters were related to large parties that spread. One person, if you look like two or three levels down, infecting almost 60 people. If they were following the guidelines that we put forth, we wouldn’t have this issue,” Hara said.

Hara’s comment underscores some new potential risks as Hawaii enters what is traditionally graduation party season. An estimated 15,000 students are completing high school this spring, and this is a time of large, festive gatherings.

Hara did not specifically identify the clusters involved, and declined through a spokesman to elaborate on his remarks after the hearing. But Lt. Gov. Josh Green said Monday he was aware that a party was a factor in a cluster of infections in Kailua-Kona that triggered the temporary closure of three McDonald’s restaurants.

That cluster included 18 employees and 12 household members.

“Clusters that occur from parties could jeopardize opening up the economy like we need to. I hope people take that to heart for the good of all,” Green said in a statement sent via text message.

State Health Director Bruce Anderson said April 22 that the Kona infections involved six or seven employees at a restaurant who tested positive, and then grew to include members of those employees’ families. The families involved were in crowded living quarters and were unable to effectively isolate themselves, he said.

Anderson made no mention of any party or social gathering, but told members of the Senate Special Committee on COVID-19 that authorities are cautious about what they say about people who are infected.

The concern is that people will be reluctant to reveal information about who they spent time with if the people involved in a cluster are unfairly “blamed” for carrying the virus, he said.

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