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Editorial: Public must act to stop COVID-19

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On March 22, Mayor Kirk Caldwell issued a “Stay At Home/Work From Home” emergency order, confining Oahuans to their residences except for defined essential activities — for nearly six weeks. At the time, new daily coronavirus case counts were reported reaching up to the high 40s.

It seemed to work. New daily cases declined to single digits. Everyone congratulated themselves on a job well done, and restrictions were eased.

Well, here we are. For weeks now, cases have surged to triple digits — sometimes more than 10 times those of the halcyon days of March. Hospital beds are filling up. What’s more, the cause appears to be community spread, meaning we can’t blame it on tourists.

In response, Caldwell on Tuesday revisited the March playbook and announced similar restrictions, beginning today. Like before, Oahu residents must mostly stay home. Gyms, hair salons, golf courses and other businesses deemed nonessential are closed, as are face-to-face city government services. Churches can remain open, but with restrictions.

It’s a painful but necessary action, given the surge. And for now, the order lasts just two weeks — optimistic, given the circumstances. We certainly hope that faithful adherence to the rules by everyone will arrest the spread of the coronavirus and prevent a longer shutdown.

There’s also another element that, until now, has been sorely lacking: a real coordinated response. This time, a combination of federal, state and city efforts will include surge testing of up to 60,000 people, more contact tracing, and hotels opening rooms for quarantining.

This strong combined push is a welcome change from the usual weak tea of vague announcements and tentative actions by the Ige administration. Still, it won’t be enough. A sustained, targeted approach has become crucial.

Many of the coronavirus cases have come from poorer communities, where residents live in crowded apartments and go to lower-paying but essential jobs that can’t be done from home. They lack adequate health insurance. Without help, “Stay At Home/Work From Home” won’t work for them — or the rest of Oahu.

Caldwell said the city will work with state and federal agencies to increase testing and contact tracing in the hardest-hit areas, as well as provide hotel rooms for those who can’t quarantine on their own. That’s a good start. The state Department of Health should help community health centers extend the reach of COVID-19 related health care.

Stay-at-home orders hurt small businesses, which will need effective help quickly to avoid a repeat of the last shutdown’s effects. About 900 businesses closed, 10% of them permanently, between March 1 and July 10, according to a Yelp Economic Average report. But unlike then, there is neither a $600-a-week additional federal unemployment payment nor Paycheck Protection Program to keep employees on the payroll.

Caldwell said he wants to provide more funds in addition to the $50 million in CARES Act funds already spent to help keep businesses solvent. The state will need to step up, too.

“We have yet to see any comprehensive, statewide plan to support businesses in need,” said Sherry Menor-McNamara, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii. “For instance, Hawaii is just one of 11 states without a statewide financial relief program for businesses.”

It’s a fair criticism. A real plan, one a business can count on, can mitigate some of the astounding financial risks imposed by the coronavirus. It can mean the difference between staying open or closing for good.

One thing’s for sure: Unless Oahu residents really, really take the order seriously and follow it, we could be stuck with a shutdown for a lot longer than two weeks.

“It worked once before, in March,” Caldwell said Wednesday. “I believe it will work again.”

Maybe. It’s up to all of us.

Correction: In-class instruction at private schools is permitted, with restrictions, under Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s latest executive order. An earlier version of this story said it was prohibited.
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