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Editorial: Public needs more, better information

There have been months of almost-daily public media briefings and information dispatches since the pandemic began.

And yet, the message isn’t always getting through. There’s a disconnect with Hawaii residents, impatient with the waxing and waning numbers of COVID-19 infections and degrees of restriction — and not understanding the reason why these steps are being taken.

Bottom line: An aggressive and graphically clear communications campaign is required, one that reaches every corner of the community, including those where English is not spoken. There is evidence one is starting, but outreach and messaging must accelerate.

Starting at the stroke of midnight this morning, activities by Oahu residents are now governed by a new set of rules. The old ones, said Mayor Kirk Caldwell, were scaled back using a scalpel rather than whacked with a hammer.

“For now,” he added.

That was a signal to everyone watching through the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Facebook Live or other broadcast and webcasting channels. It was a subtle reminder that the world is feeling its way through its course with this novel coronavirus, and that the path could swerve, or double back, at any time. Still, people need clarity.

They do know that, after a week of being told private social gatherings were being capped at 10 people, that limit was now being cut further to five.

No parties larger than five, in a private or public setting. Face coverings required in indoor and outdoor malls, at churches (no wind instruments or singing), and just about every business. In fact, people who can work at home should do so, and staffing in offices can be otherwise reduced by staggered hours.

Beaches, parks, hiking trails and bars are still closed.

It may seem clear enough. And yet, scrolling through the vitriolic reaction in online comments sections, there’s a lot of frustration. That stems largely from the disruption to lives and livelihoods, but also from confusion over why they should comply.

“What scientific evidence-based principles have made ‘5’ the magic number?” one asked. “(Gov. David) Ige and Caldwell are simply making this up. Our rates of COVID-19 transmission will not abate.”

They are not, in fact, making it up. But the comments reflect a deep mistrust — a mistrust that develops when people don’t get straight answers to their questions. The government should do better at explaining the logic behind this.

Comments included legitimate questions. Can my family of seven go out to eat? (Yes, but they will need to sit in smaller groupings, socially distanced). Can my family of five have other family members over? (No; collectively, the group will be too large).

That all sounds unfair to people, but the virus doesn’t care about fairness — or about family kinship. And every time someone new is introduced to a household “bubble,” everyone in it is exposed to potential infection from external sources.

Why are gyms OK and not hiking? Why are water parks allowed, but not tennis matches?

One motivation, to keep businesses open and clinging to survival, is genuine — and crucial. A collapsed economy would cause incalculable damage to all of us. But it’s not the only reason.

Within those supervised settings, there are controls on access, spacing and other risk factors. Uncontrolled social events potentially draw too many people too close together, and away from supervision. Hikers stop and gather; tennis balls are shared among players.

The National Governors Association in July called a communications strategy critical for “mitigating adverse public reactions” (www.nga.org/memos/countering-mis-and-disinformation-covid19).

Adverse reactions are already in evidence here. Hawaii will be battling this virus for some time — a battle that, without public understanding and support, it will surely lose.

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