When the Oahu matrix of restriction “tiers” was devised to guide proper behavior in the coronavirus pandemic, the only defense against COVID-19 was one of avoidance. Keep a safer 6 feet apart, wash hands and wear masks. Those were the words of wisdom.
They still are, of course, but since then the vaccines have arrived, providing the most powerful weapon for battling the deadly virus.
Amid the rises in COVID-19 cases that flared earlier in the pandemic, a sudden spike such as the one that Oahu witnessed in the last few weeks surely would have compelled a ratcheting down to more restrictive rules.
Perhaps Mayor Rick Blangiardi will modify the rules somewhat, but he is reasonably arguing against a downshift from Tier 3 to the more-limiting Tier 2. Gov. David Ige, who must approve any alteration in the tier definitions or terms, signaled on Monday that he was willing to monitor to see if infection cases stabilize and consider proposals from the mayor.
Some measured approach in the coming days would make sense, because the landscape has changed.
Too many businesses have failed already, and the ones that have held on by their fingernails surely would join them if the axe fell one more time. The vaccine distribution is going well, so the aim should be to find some modification that could help stave off a further COVID surge until the protective layer of immunizations solidifies.
One needed change would be to bolster enforcement efforts that seem to have fallen off in more recent weeks. On Feb. 28, the Honolulu Police Department shut down its enforcement hotline that had run since the increase in cases last August. And the work of a COVID enforcement team of 160 officers was sidelined in November because of excesses in overtime. In any case, both were funded by federal CARES Act dollars that could only go so far.
But adherence to the rules, on masking and sizes of social gatherings in particular, has slipped so some replacement is needed.
Senate Bill 1117 would advance that goal through the convening of a task force that could enlist retired police officers. That force could help rein in misbehavior that run counter to public health and safety.
In the Star-Advertiser’s “Spotlight Hawaii” webcast on Monday, the governor said he would be open to such a proposal; Ige also noted that a bill is still alive to make COVID enforcement more effective by enabling citations rather than the arrest and court proceedings the state’s emergency order now authorizes. All of that is good news.
Another needed component is more persistent messaging, to tourists as well as to pandemic-weary isle residents, that the health of the community depends on continued safe practices. Ige said state and county authorities are reaching out to hotel properties as well as businesses, churches and groups more broadly to issue reminders of the rules, and are working to head off ill-considered events when they hear of them in advance.
That would help. Up to this point, the outreach has too reactive.
In the near term, however, leaders should settle on ways to keep a lid on COVID-19 infections, without extinguishing newfound economic momentum. Blangiardi has suggested changing the outlines of the city’s pandemic order so that the tiers would be defined as operating within a more flexible range of case counts. That would be rational, at this stage.
The difficult balancing act is that both mayor and governor still have to communicate to an impatient public two crucial points.
One: A combination of careful behavior and vaccines point the way to the post-pandemic life that’s close at hand.
Two: We’re not there yet, so stay the course.