Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi and local health care leaders emphasized the need for Hawaii to get back to a semblance of normalcy as the latest surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations wanes, warning of the social and economic ramifications of continued restrictions.
“Given where we are at, in this course of the pandemic and the course of the vaccination rollout, I think the much greater risk to the public health of this community are those social and economic factors beyond the virus itself,” said Raymond Vara, president and CEO of Hawaii Pacific Health, during a briefing Monday before the state House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness. Vara warned that “poverty is the greatest risk of public health.”
Gov. David Ige imposed a new round of restrictions on social gatherings and businesses this summer when COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations surged as a result of the highly contagious delta variant. The spike caused strains to the state’s intensive care unit and nursing capacity. But Vara said the state’s health care infrastructure can now withstand virus-related pressure.
“There has been a lot of talk about hospital capacity and not wanting to stress the system,” said Vara. But he said the state’s health care system is stressed annually, particularly when hospitals are grappling with increases in flu cases and other diseases. “This isn’t to compare COVID to those diseases or other viruses. But the truth is, we have the ability as a health system to withstand a fair amount of stress,” said Vara.
Throughout most of the pandemic, local residents and businesses could rely on federal aid to withstand the more severe consequences of the economic downturn and soaring unemployment. But much of that aid is now gone, including federal supplements to unemployment insurance.
Carl Bonham, executive director of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization, warned that the loss of federal dollars is creating a potentially perilous situation in Hawaii, particularly as tourism remains depressed due to the national surge in cases and calls from Ige for tourists to stay away.
“Hawaii’s situation today is still one of really needing a tremendous amount of recovery,” said Bonham. He noted that jobs are still down 14% from before the pandemic.
“The crisis for many of these households is actually just now beginning, or it’s beginning in a much more pronounced way,” Bonham said.
Ige eased some restrictions Friday. Bars can now stay open two hours later, until midnight, and up to 1,000 people can attend the next University of Hawaii home football game. But his overall executive order relating to COVID-19 restrictions remains in place through the end of November.
Blangiardi said that he would push to ease up on restrictions, including expanding participation in the Honolulu Marathon to allow more than 10,000 people. A new rule starting this week caps road races at 500 participants. The mayor is also hoping for full attendance at the last two UH home football games of the season.
“We are not waiting. We want to be aggressive here,” said Blangiardi.
The mayor said he was particularly worried about the “psychological health of the community,” including increases in depression, child obesity and domestic violence.
House Speaker Scott Saiki expressed support for fewer restrictions and said Ige should be urging tourists to travel to Hawaii to help boost the economy. “The governor needs to speak out clearly and quickly at this point,” said Saiki.
But Ige, known for his cautious approach, doesn’t seem ready to announce that Hawaii is fully open for visitors, just yet.
He told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s “Spotlight Hawaii” livestream program Monday that he would probably make an announcement “in the next week or two” but provided no details.
Coronavirus cases have fallen precipitously over the past five weeks, with the state now reporting an average of 167 cases a day over the past week, with an average case positivity rate of 2.8%. On Monday the state Department of Health reported 113 new infections and four COVID-19-related deaths. There were 152 people hospitalized with COVID-19 on Monday, according to state data, falling from a high of 473 in early September.
Star-Advertiser staff writer Dan Nakaso contributed to this story.