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Zooming in on the major issues facing Hawaii in 2021

  • PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY JOE GUINTO / JGUINTO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY JOE GUINTO / JGUINTO@STARADVERTISER.COM

  • JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Hawaii received its first shipments of the coronavirus vaccine in December and immediately began inoculating the most exposed health care workers and first responders. Dr. Lester Morehead, a hospitalist in The Queen’s Medical Center COVID-19 unit, received the first vaccination in the state from APRN Ruby Takahashi.

    JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Hawaii received its first shipments of the coronavirus vaccine in December and immediately began inoculating the most exposed health care workers and first responders. Dr. Lester Morehead, a hospitalist in The Queen’s Medical Center COVID-19 unit, received the first vaccination in the state from APRN Ruby Takahashi.

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Waikiki beach in June saw mostly locals enjoying the shore.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Waikiki beach in June saw mostly locals enjoying the shore.

  • JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                With the $900 billion federal stimulus approved in December, Gov. David Ige, left, called off furloughs for state workers that were to begin this month.

    JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    With the $900 billion federal stimulus approved in December, Gov. David Ige, left, called off furloughs for state workers that were to begin this month.

Hoping for herd immunity by midyear

The state is hoping to put an end to the coronavirus crisis and restore a battered economy after nearly a year of infections and isolation, agonizing deaths and financial ruin for thousands of Hawaii residents.

Health experts hope the COVID-19 vaccine will be the light at the end of a seemingly endless tunnel and the key to diminishing the threat of coronavirus in the community. The state received its first shipments of the vaccine in December and immediately began inoculating the most exposed health care workers and first responders, along with vulnerable long-term-care residents and staff.

The vaccine is also being distributed to independent doctors and medical staff who are considered high-risk. The state plans a vacci­nation campaign for more than 100,000 seniors 75 and older next, though immunization of the largest segment of the population won’t happen until late spring or summer.

Hawaii is facing an uphill battle in convincing enough people to take the COVID-19 shot to stop spread in communities heavily dependent on tourism, which has all but dried up since the start of the outbreak. What’s more, the visitor industry is not expected to start meaningful recovery until the third or fourth quarter of 2021, at best.

Nationally, the rate of immunizations is moving slowly, even as a more contagious variant of the virus is now circulating in the U.S. More than 13 million COVID-19 vaccines have been distributed across the nation, though only 4.2 million Americans had voluntarily been inoculated as of Saturday morning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Meanwhile, ongoing outbreaks have kept Oahu in Tier 2 of Honolulu’s four-tier recovery plan. Though former Mayor Kirk Caldwell, whose term ended Saturday, had hoped to move into the less-restrictive Tier 3 by Christmas or at least New Year’s Eve, rising numbers — partly due to an outbreak at the Halawa Correctional Facility — continue to restrict residents from gathering in groups of more than five.

Despite ongoing restrictions on daily life and commerce, the vaccine brings hope to many residents desperately seeking a return to normalcy, as well as exhausted front-line workers who have been battling the disease for the past 10 months. At the close of 2020, the Health Department reported 21,397 coronavirus cases statewide since the start of the outbreak and 288 deaths.

The state hopes to get as much as 60% to 70% of the population vaccinated to reach so-called herd immunity by mid-2021.

In a draft vaccination plan, the DOH said it needs to build capacity to immunize about 121,000 residents in “critical populations” with two doses of the vaccine. Under that scenario, the state needs 242,000 doses for 11% of the population age 18 and older.

More than 20,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine expected in the islands by the end of 2020 did not arrive. At least 24% of the anticipated 81,825 doses were delayed due to production, with the state receiving a total of 61,450 doses.

In the meantime, Hawaii officials are urging residents to remain vigilant in adhering to COVID- 19 safety precautions — including mask-wearing, social distancing, limited gatherings and hand-washing — as Hawaii awaits large amounts of the vaccine to immunize the broader population.

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Kristen Consillio, kconsillio@staradvertiser.com

Budget shortfall looms over lawmakers

The Legislative session that begins Jan. 20 will be dominated by the question of how best to cope with the uncertain economic ramifications of COVID-19, with discussion and debate taking place in a state Capitol building that’s likely to be closed to the public, although the public will be able to testify in writing or remotely.

How big a budget hole will need to be plugged when lawmakers convene remains elusive, along with the unknown demand for social aid.

Asked about the challenge of trying to hit moving revenue and spending targets, House Speaker Scott Saiki said: “It looks like we will be working through this the entire legislative session.”

Even before the session officially starts, the first of a series of 19 Senate Ways and Means Committee hearings will kick off Monday with three separate meetings.

The state is bracing for a $1.4 billion shortfall in each of the next four years because of COVID-19’s hit to Hawaii’s once record-setting economy.

Gov. David Ige previously called for furloughs of thousands of state workers to begin Jan. 1 in an effort to save $300 million annually and avert the possibility of as many as 4,000 layoffs. But the $900 billion federal stimulus relief package out of Washington, D.C., led Ige to call off the furloughs, at least for now.

And the possibility of additional, direct stimulus aid to Hawaii residents raises more questions about how much help from state government people will need as the New Year begins. A new round of $600 payments has already started arriving in direct deposit accounts but won’t stretch far.

None of the $900 billion federal stimulus package signed Dec. 27 by President Donald Trump directly helps cities, counties or states — or makes up for revenue shortfalls.

But it does include money the state had planned to spend for COVID-19 vaccines, distribution, testing and education that Ige said will mean that furloughs intended to cut state employees’ pay by just more than 9% can be averted for now.

The governor has said the furloughs could be delayed until July 1, the start of the new fiscal year, while acknowledging the uncertainty for state employees.

“I know the uncertainty makes things difficult for you and your families,” he said.

Saiki said the welcomed new round of federal funding poses new challenges.

“We don’t have all the details yet, but the federal stimulus funds seemed to be earmarked for specific kinds of programs, unlike the prior CARES Act funds, where the state received a $1.25 billion lump sum,” Saiki said. “It looks like two of the areas specifically provided for are public education and the Health Department. It is possible that there could still be a shortfall in the state operating budget because of insufficient state tax revenue.”

The House Finance Committee is trying to plan for the economic unknown by “already working to plot out the allocations for the new stimulus funds to identify other program areas that may still be short,” Saiki said.

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Dan Nakaso, dnakaso@staradvertiser.com

Tourism recovery will be long and slow

Many in Hawaii are hoping rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine and additional federal support will contribute to a better 2021 for the state’s vital visitor industry. The vaccine is expected to improve consumer confidence, and federal dollars may allow a few more beleaguered businesses to hang on until the economy recovers.

But these changes aren’t expected to move the needle far fast.

Part of the reason is that while federal support is coming, it’s still unclear how much assistance businesses will get and if the newly passed $900 billion stimulus package will be enough to increase consumer confidence, especially in travel. Also, there are still too many unknowns about how the COVID-19 vaccination works for the state Department of Health to adjust Hawaii’s Safe Travels entry requirements or the state’s masking and social distancing rules.

Dr. Libby Char, DOH director, said in a statement, “We are watching carefully and may implement some sort of exemption in the future.”

In the meantime, Char said, “currently, there are a lot of unknowns, including whether or not a person who has been vaccinated can still be shedding virus and passing on infection. The length of time the vaccines confer immunity is also not known, though we hope it will protect us for a very long time.”

Char added that to get the full benefit of the vaccine, recipients would need to get two doses about a month apart and then wait for two weeks following that.

“We are hopeful that people in the community will step up to protect themselves, their families and loved ones by getting vaccinated when they become eligible,” she said.

The future of Hawaii’s visitor industry has dramatically dimmed under a convergence of recent factors, including new coronavirus surges across the globe.

Cancellations of existing reservations and slowdowns in future bookings have mounted since Nov. 24, when Hawaii stopped allowing visitors to bypass the quarantine unless they had an approved test in hand before the final leg of their trip to Hawaii. Kauai’s decision to opt out of Safe Travels on Dec. 2 and require all interisland and trans-Pacific passengers to quarantine decimated tourism there and created enough market confusion to drag tourism down on other islands, too.

Gov. David Ige last week approved a request by Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami to rejoin the Safe Travels program, allowing interisland travelers who test negative for COVID-19 to bypass the county’s mandatory 10-day quarantine as of Tuesday. Trans-Pacific travelers must be in Hawaii for 72 hours minimum to qualify to bypass the quarantine if they’ve met the requirements of the Safe Travels pre-arrivals program.

The order takes effect the same day as a post-travel testing program authorizing a shorter quarantine for those who choose to stay in so-called “resort bubbles” on Kauai.

Ben Rafter, Hawai‘i Tourism Authority board member and Springboard Hospitality’s president and CEO, said inconsistent tourism requirements have hurt Hawaii and slowed down future bookings — a key indicator of better times ahead.

“When there is inconsistency between various counties, the harder it is for tourists to understand how to get here and what they need to do and the more likely that they are to book somewhere else like Mexico,” he said.

As a result, Rafter said, the booking pace for Hawaii tourism has slowed and windows have shortened. People are booking a week to 10 days out instead of at least 60 to 90 days out, he said.

The lackluster bookings, which provide a glimpse into the future, are why Rafter and other Hawaii visitor industry veterans say they don’t anticipate the start of meaningful tourism recovery until the third or fourth quarter of this year at best, with pessimists making a case for continued pain into 2022.

“To be clear, we aren’t even in the beginning of the recovery phase; we are still at the lowest levels. There have been slight increases in pace, but it’s not even close to profitable,” Rafter said. “Markets like Kauai, which shut down, are now sitting with only 2% to 3% on the books. They are a complete loss at this point.”

Even COVID-19 immunizations, which started last month, aren’t expected to provide turnaround until at least the second half of 2021, Rafter said.

“We’d have to have herd immunity before it would be helpful,” he said. “We think that might come about by late (2021).”

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Allison Schaefers, aschaefers@staradvertiser.com

Challenging times for new city leaders

Newly sworn-in Mayor Rick Blangiardi has grabbed the reins at Honolulu Hale in the midst of one of the most tumultuous periods in Hawaii history.

The longtime television executive and first-time elected official is tasked with leading Honolulu residents out of the coronavirus pandemic while also maintaining key city serv­ices in the face of declining revenues and figuring out a way forward for the troubled $11 billion-plus rail project.

Blangiardi took the oath of office Saturday, replacing Mayor Kirk Caldwell, whose indefatigable but oft-criticized tenure at Honolulu Hale closed after eight roller coaster years.

Blangiardi has said that while he supports Caldwell’s tiered strategy for reopening the island’s businesses and other activities, he wants to see if he can put into place a more aggressive plan.

As for rail, the new mayor said he’s committed to the entire 20-mile line to be built while also embracing the idea that it needs to be built in segments as available funding permits, a strategy supported by Caldwell, former Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation CEO Andrew Robbins and Robbins’ replacement, Lori Kahikina.

How that will be accomplished financially in the face of falling excise and hotel room taxes, the two main funding sources for the project, will be the main order of business for the city and HART.

Caldwell delivered a bit of good news for his successor on Tuesday. Just six weeks after acting Budget and Fiscal Serv­ices Director Manny Valbuena warned that the city was facing a $450 million shortfall, the outgoing mayor announced that he would be handing over to Blangiardi a balanced budget that was achieved without property tax rate increases, fee hikes or layoffs or furloughs of city employees.

Blangiardi, when he formally submits his budget to the City Council in March, will have to figure out what he can add from his own wish list of programs and projects for the next fiscal year and how to pay for them.

The Blangiardi administration isn’t the only new entity in the Hale.

For the only time in recent memory, five of the nine Council members took their seats for the first time on Saturday: Radiant Cordero, Esther Kiaaina, Calvin Say, Augie Tulba and Andria Tupola. The four holdovers are Tommy Waters, Brandon Elefante, Carol Fukunaga and Heidi Tsuneyoshi.

Also in a bit of history, the 2021 Council roster is the first in which women comprise the majority.

The new Council will be led by Waters, who was elected chairman by a 9-0 vote after Saturday’s inauguration.

The relationships among Blangiardi, Waters and the other Council members will be closely watched in 2021.

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Gordon Pang, gordonpang@staradvertiser.com

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