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Hawaii running out of time to spend CARES Act money

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                On Friday a man wore his mask as he strolled past a holiday sign along Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki. Hawaii reported 110 new COVID-19 cases Friday.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    On Friday a man wore his mask as he strolled past a holiday sign along Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki. Hawaii reported 110 new COVID-19 cases Friday.

  • JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Pedestrians wore masks Wednesday while crossing Kapiolani Boulevard.

    JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Pedestrians wore masks Wednesday while crossing Kapiolani Boulevard.

Hawaii officials are racing to spend millions of dollars in federal coronavirus aid with a month and a half left before the funds expire.

The federal government awarded Hawaii $1.25 billion from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, though it has spent or encumbered only 22.3% of the funds, according to the Honolulu City Council, which is urging the state’s congressional leaders to push for an extension of the year-end deadline to use the money.

“It’s going to take several years for our devastated economy to fully recover, but the clock is ticking right now for Hawaii because every CARES Act dollar has to be spent by Dec. 30th or we have to give the money back to the federal government,” Council Chairman Emeritus Ron Menor said in a news release about a resolution passed last week also imploring Hawaii’s congressional delegation to secure more money for COVID-19 relief. “That’s why it’s imperative that we get more time and more federal funds so our residents, who are suffering now, can be appropriately helped.”

The city received $387 million in CARES Act money and has expended more than $200 million with about $178 million left and encumbered, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said this week. The city announced Friday it is spending $151 million, or nearly 40%, to help small businesses so no money will be returned to the feds as thousands of Hawaii residents remain jobless and businesses struggle to stay afloat.

“We are prudently spending CARES Act money … helping people and businesses get back on their feet, and developing innovations for a post-COVID-19 economy,” Caldwell said in a release.

The city is also spending up to $10 million to ramp up COVID-19 testing, contact tracing and support serv­ices at Oahu’s community health centers ahead of the looming deadline. However, those services will stop at year’s end when the federal money expires, while the pandemic is expected to still be raging.

Health officials reported 110 new coronavirus infections statewide, bringing the total since the start of the pandemic to 16,412 cases. The official state COVID-19 death toll remains unchanged at 222. Of the state’s total infections, 1,414 are currently considered active.

Meanwhile, health care leaders warned a Senate Special Committee on COVID-19 of a third wave of infections predicted to start this month and continue into March, peaking in January.

“Pandemics have significantly gone up in the fall because people come in, gather and are going back to school and work, and there’s the holidays,” Jill Hoggard Green, president and CEO of the Queen’s Health Systems, told lawmakers. “Gatherings without your masks are where a majority of the virus is spread. It really depends on our behaviors right now.”

Dr. Mark Mugiishi, president and CEO of the Hawaii Medical Service Association, the state’s largest health insurer, added that Hawaii’s priority must be to change behaviors in order to control the contagion.

“We should definitely have a consistent mask mandate across our state, and we have to avoid gatherings. We know people have some COVID fatigue. Winter is coming, that is a dangerous thing,” he said. “But we actually do have the ability to control it and mitigate the impact it might have on us, and we should take advantage of that.”

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