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Bill would give DOH director power to require screening of arriving passengers

Coronavirus-related measures before the Legislature would grant the state health director authority to require traveler health screening and prohibit the sale of contact-tracing information.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee on Thursday passed House Bill 2502, which would give the Department of Health director the power to require health screening of arriving passengers with the governor’s approval. It also would allow the health director to declare a public health emergency, order quarantine and contact tracing, and temporarily close schools and businesses, and would also grant similar responsibilities that now fall to the governor.

The administration bill has stirred up opposition from the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, which believes it grants too much power to the health director. Grassroot Institute Policy Director Malia Hill said the measure also raises concerns about accountability and civil liberties.

She noted that Hawaii’s emergency power statute already allows the governor to delegate some of these responsibilities. “On some level it’s somewhat unnecessary, and now we have this idea that an unelected executive official will be able to do many of the things that the governor is able to do under his emergency power,” Hill said. “That lack of accountability is an issue.”

Joe Kent, executive vice president of Grassroot Institute, said in a press release, “While it may be useful to open public debate on how and whether public health emergencies should be treated differently than other emergencies, this particular bill is premature. The state’s emergency management statute already allows the governor to delegate powers to other individuals — including the director of health — in order to address an emergency, so there is no pressing need to move on this issue at this time.

“Hawaii’s citizens and policy makers need more time to evaluate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the state response before enacting legislation that addresses the state’s police powers during the future crisis,” he continued.

Past testimony on the bill revealed substantial opposition and confusion over vague language in the measure.

Also Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee deferred House Bill 2572, which would have prohibited the sale of contact-tracing information without consent. The deferral means the measure is now dead for this legislative session.

Rep. Chris Lee (D, Kailua- Waimanalo) — who introduced the bill in January before the COVID-19 pandemic emerged in Hawaii — said it originally wasn’t related to COVID-19 but “was built off a task force” that has spent the last year looking at how to modernize privacy in general in the digital era.

The bill was amended earlier this year to focus on geolocation data that identifies an electronic device’s physical location and to specifically relate to information gathered during COVID-19 contact tracing.

“For example, all the health information that’s out there right now, when normally recorded in a doctor’s office, is covered by (the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) and completely protected,” Lee said in an interview. “That exact information when recorded through an app, any other COVID-tracking apps or online services … none of that is protected under existing law.”

Lee said the information could be bought, sold and used for other purposes, although it’s unclear how a private entity would get access to contact-tracing information from a government agency.

“In this case, it’s a complicated topic and we were unable bring the negotiations for a conclusion,” Sen. Karl Rhoads (D, Nuuanu- Downtown-Liliha) said before he deferred the bill at Thursday’s hearing.

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