It may not be an unusual observation for a military man to make. All the same, it was startling to hear Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, the incident commander of Hawaii’s coronavirus response, voice his concern about the financial wreckage families are enduring.
“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,” Hara said upon the reconvening of the Legislature on Monday.
The needed point he was making was that hundreds of thousands of Hawaii residents, having lost all or much of their income through the COVID-19 business shutdown, are on edge; without the restart of economic activity, that tension could break into the open.
Gov. David Ige, in response, said he did not believe civil unrest in the community is likely. Even so, there is an urgent need that demands fuller attention from both the executive and legislative branches.
The first priority in what remains on the lawmaking agenda must be providing relief to taxpayers, in the form of unemployment insurance (UI) and other aid and social services, and in managing the risks for the economic reboot so that it can succeed.
Scott Murakami, director of the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, said on Tuesday that there are just under 75,000 claims still in processing, representing about 30%.
DLIR has been hobbled by outdated information technology systems, a weakness that it hopes to address using some of Hawaii’s funds from the federal CARES Act. That is necessary, but it doesn’t help the newly jobless, standing in long lines at the various food hand-outs in recent weeks.
The House Finance Committee is slated today to vote on a spending plan for the $860 million in CARES funding, as well as the state’s rainy-day fund and other sources.
There are some worthy elements in the current draft, but there’s still time to refine its focus as the full House and Senate grapple with the problems. Other ideas, such as Sen. Laura Thielen’s proposal to use some funding for more immediate loans to suffering households, should be discussed.
State Rep. Sylvia Luke, who chairs the House panel, noted a vast improvement in the wait time for jobless claimants in the call-center queue and in clearing the backlog. Lawmakers deserve some credit for lighting the fire under DLIR and other sluggish departments over the last two months.
But going forward, legislators and the public need assurances from Gov. David Ige’s administration that, for example, the $1.36 million for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance fund can get out the door quickly.
“I am a little disturbed that the PUA discussion didn’t happen two months ago,” Luke said Tuesday.
No kidding. That relief, which was needed weeks ago, can’t be held up.
On the matter of restoring public confidence in resuming economic activity, the Department of Health has advanced its plan to train more staff in contact tracing, an essential component in controlling the spread of new COVID-19 infections that almost certainly will come with renewed business activity.
That public-health headway is good to hear. And a $25 million proposal to upgrade the department’s laboratories, enabled through the federal funds, is also well founded. But it’s still unclear how the state plans to reduce the risk of new infections from future arrivals when tourism resumes. The proposed investment in thermal screening is not enough of a shield to deploy at the airports; a better plan for testing will be essential.
There has been some progress in Hawaii’s overall response, but there’s still substantial pain across the state. Leaders are called to earn their own salaries by enabling more of the islands’ families to recover theirs.