Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

By luck, geography, decisive action or some combination of the three, Hawaii has managed the spread of the Covid-19 better than most, but the past three months have exposed fissures in Hawaii's leadership and coordination as the state begins to restart its stalled economy.  

Hawaii boasts the lowest infection rate in the U.S. -- 45 cases for every 100,000 residents -- and Kauai has not reported a new positive test in more than a month.

Now attention is turning to the reopening plan already underway, jump-starting the economy, and how to best bring back the vital tourism industry while guarding public health. The Aloha State's success at combating the spread of coronavirus has also crippled the economy. By the end of April, roughly 220,000 people had lost their jobs -- 30% of the state workforce -- and half of those jobs are directly tied to the halt in tourism, according to a University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization (UHERO) analysis.

But opening up to tourism means inviting people from places with higher infection rates, exposing residents and workers to an outbreak, and a possible second shutdown. For example, California and Washington, two major source markets for Hawaii, have infection rates of 300 and 306 per 100,00 residents, respectively.

Hawaii will have to carefully chart a course through the coming months of uncertainty while its leadership is frequently at odds. While the suggestion box for how to restart Hawaii's economy, and specifically its tourism sector, is filling up fast in the form of new coalitions, policy proposals, reports, essays and studies, actual plans with state backing have not yet materialized.

The Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association has collaborated with other industry groups to craft reopening guidelines and principles, including cleaning and sanitation procedures for hospitality businesses, but a union that represents more than 12,000 hotel and hospitality workers, Unite Here Local 5, said the plans are insufficient to protect the frontline workers and held a caravan protest in Waikiki on May 27 with more than 100 vehicles. 

The use of thermal screening, pre- and post-flight temperature checks and even "travel bubbles" -- special travel agreements with countries that demonstrate low infection rates -- have been floated. For example, the state is exploring a special agreement with Japan, which has an infection rate of 13 per 100,000 and is Hawaii's top international market, to allow for travel between the two archipelagos before the state opens up to other visitors.

Hawaii's phased reopening began at the end of May, and some businesses have begun to reopen with new social distancing guidelines. The interisland mandatory quarantine is set to expire June 16, but the two-week quarantine for all arrivals from out of state will extend into July, Gov. David Ige recently announced. More detailed plans, including how economy recovery funds will be deployed and a comprehensive strategy for tourism appear to be held up by internal conflict and jockeying for control and influence.

A rundown of some of the leadership shakeups and squabbles:

• On June 3, Chris Tatum resigned as president and CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, saying in a statement that he was moving to Colorado for retirement and his last day would be Aug. 31. Tatum was less than two years into the role after four decades in the hotel industry, and was working to adjust HTA efforts with more emphasis on destination management and sustainable tourism, allocating fewer resources to boosting total visitor numbers.

• At the beginning of the pandemic, Gov. David Ige tapped Lt. Gov. Josh Green, a medical doctor, as his liaison for coordinating the state's medical response. Then by March 25, according to a Honolulu Civil Beat report, Green (a likely candidate for governor this year) had been effectively shut out of coronavirus planning, and Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, director of the state Emergency Management Agency, was leading the state's response. A day later, Ige (who is prevented from running for reelection by term limits) and Green met to smooth out their differences and get on the same page. 

• By April 8, as part of his plan to address the crisis, Ige had appointed former Hawaiian Electric Co. CEO Alan Oshima to the new position of Hawaii economic and community recovery and resiliency navigator, with a mandate to develop proposals and coordinate a collaborative economic strategy. But the Senate balked at handing over such authority and funding the proposed consultants. Legislators slashed the requested budget and argued the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism (DBEDT) should lead the effort.

• In May, DBEDT director Mike McCartney was tight-lipped and confrontational in front of the Senate Covid-19 joint committee, which he accused of bullying his staff. Brandishing a copy of the Senate's own anti-harassment policy, he refused to answer questions about the administration's recovery plan and would not make his staff available.

That hearing was led by committee co-chair state Sen. George Wakai, who led a largely unsuccessful effort in 2018 to slash the Hawaii Tourism Authority budget following a critical audit of the agency. On June 2, Honolulu Civil Beat broke the story of a 2019 investigation into Wakai's treatment of HTA staff that found he "engaged in repeated, abusive behavior that interrupted and interfered with the work of HTA staff."

• Following the contentious hearings with state officials, the Senate approved a special investigative committee granted the power to subpoena records and compel witnesses to testify. The Senate, clearly butting heads with Ige's administration, is complaining that state officials are ignoring their requests for information.

• State and local officials have also aired disagreements over contact tracing, with local authorities pushing for more resources than state planners say is necessary.

Department of Health director Bruce Anderson and state epidemiologist Sarah Park argue Hawaii has enough contact tracing capacity for the current level of cases, and they have a plan to scale up and train people as required. Meanwhile, Honolulu mayor Kirk Caldwell (another likely candidate for governor) and Hara, among others, say the department's contact tracing resources are inadequate, and will need hundreds more workers to handle the restart of tourism.

The political friction could mean delays in planning that set back the Aloha State's recovery, economists have warned. The latest forecast from UHERO outlines three possible scenarios for recovery: baseline, optimistic and pessimistic. In the baseline scenario, "two-thirds of job losses would be recovered by next year," according to the report, but "persisting social-distancing measures would continue to impose significant ongoing costs for tourism. Even with a relatively steep path of initial gains, visitor numbers would fall short 2019 levels for the next five years." The report emphasizes implementing a sound strategy sooner rather than later will be key in determining which path the state ends up on.

"Hawaii's heavy reliance on tourism means that the local economy will lag behind the national pace of recovery progress. But how recovery proceeds will depend crucially on government policy responses," the authors state.


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