City Council members Tuesday called on Mayor Kirk Caldwell to reopen the economy more quickly and allow families to be together on beaches and in parks.
The mayor needs to stop the bleeding among small businesses and institute rules that make sense for outdoor gatherings, Council members said in a briefing on Caldwell’s latest emergency order.
On Sept. 8 Caldwell announced a new emergency order that kept all but essential businesses closed and reopened beaches, parks and hiking trails for solo activities only.
After receiving complaints from residents that the emergency order rules don’t follow a predictable pattern, the City Council held an informational briefing Tuesday to discuss the rationale behind the rules.
Hiro Toiya, director of the city Department of Emergency Management, along with Managing Director Roy Amemiya, represented the city in the briefing and said, as Caldwell has said before, that community health is the impetus behind the emergency orders.
“The No. 1 reason why we’re having the orders in place … is for public health,” Toiya said. “The goal really is to reduce high-risk encounters, and how do we do that? It’s through behavior modification.”
Toiya compared the lockdown to other laws aiding public health, such as those prohibiting drinking alcohol and driving, requiring seat belts while driving and restricting smoking in public places — behaviors that are common-sense but still require laws and enforcement.
That mindset was problematic for Councilwoman Heidi Tsuneyoshi.
“Whenever we look at legislation, we look at intended and unintended consequences. So, when you think about imposing mandatory seat belt usage, all the relatable outcomes of that are generally all positive,” Tsuneyoshi said.
But she worried that the goal of “behavior modification” that is driving current lockdown orders will take too long and have negative outcomes for the public and businesses.
She said that after seven months of COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, metrics are available to provide guidelines so businesses can understand how to reopen and stay open.
“We cannot be in the business of behavior modification at this point. We are beyond the point of having conversations even about this. The businesses have been in limbo for seven months now,” Tsuneyoshi said. “There are generational businesses that have closed down, and we’re sitting here hearing about behavior modification.”
Business owners, many of whom have either temporarily or permanently closed their businesses, and advocates have complained for months about confusing rules and been asking for clear reopening guidelines.
In late July the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported that nearly 900 Honolulu businesses closed temporarily or permanently because of COVID-19.
“It’s very concerning to me to hear that we’re still working on the (reopening) guidelines,” she said.
Amemiya told the Council that a tiered, public guide for businesses is being developed and will be implemented Sept. 24, a day after the latest emergency order ends.
He said the guidelines will be based on two criteria: the number of positive cases per 100,000 residents and the test-positive rate, or the percentage of COVID-19 tests that come back positive.
Toiya reported that COVID-19 might not be as widespread on Oahu as it might have appeared, but that it is concentrated in “certain areas and in higher-risk populations.” He said two weeks of federally funded surge testing have shown that only 260 of 46,000 test results received have been positive.
Tsuneyoshi believes the city should focus on creating guidelines and appropriate enforcement to reopen Hawaii’s economy more quickly.
The emergency orders also have been confusing to the public in general, and Tsuneyoshi said that to most people the pattern of closing and reopening “makes no sense at all.”
Councilman Ron Menor touched on that confusion, noting that film and television production is listed as one of the city’s “essential businesses” while retail businesses that could be crucial for day-to-day life, such as those that sell or repair phones or mobile devices, remain closed.
He’s received questions from the community surrounding the latest reopening of beaches, parks and hiking trails, which people can use via Caldwell’s latest order, but only if they do so alone.
The order sparked safety concerns, and some, such as Lt. Gov. Josh Green, have asked city officials to loosen restrictions to allow those living in the same household to participate in outdoor activities together.
“We’ve been hearing from constituents that perhaps you should be allowing a couple or a family to congregate in the beaches and the parks,” Menor said.
When asked exactly how far people need to be from each other, city spokesman Alex Zannes referred to a section of Caldwell’s order that states that people must be 6 feet apart when outside.
Toiya’s response to Menor was that the city is cautious of another premature opening that led to the current surge in COVID-19 cases.
“What we saw when we reopened was essentially … uncontrolled gatherings in open spaces,” he said. “Granted, open spaces are safer than indoor spaces, but not when you have dozens, if not more, people gathering closely together, huddled together under a tent.”
Tsuneyoshi said police should have been enforcing a prohibition of large gatherings rather than enforcing the closure of public spaces.
At a glance, Caldwell’s second stay-at-home order appears to be working. When he announced the city’s latest emergency order, Honolulu was experiencing more than 200 new cases per day more often than not.
Fewer than 200 cases have been reported on Oahu every day since Sept. 6, and that number has steadily dropped to just 59 new cases reported on the island Tuesday.
Toiya and Amemiya said that the city is taking a “conservative” approach to avoid a possible third lockdown and make sure it is prepared for another reopening, noting initiatives to establish more spaces in hotels for isolation and an adequate workforce of contact tracers.
Toiya said a third shutdown likely would be “more harmful to the economy than anything else,” and, in response to Tsuneyoshi’s criticism that there needs to be more urgency in reopening, said, “We all share the sense of urgency, but we have one shot to get this right.”