As the coronavirus outbreak was officially declared a national emergency, Honolulu officials took action by canceling public meetings, implementing work-from-home policies, restricting employee travel and considering freeing up rainy day funds to respond to the pandemic.

“We continue to face a very evolving situation with COVID-19 that does have many uncertainties,” Council Chair Ikaika Anderson said at a special council meeting on Friday morning. “Today’s actions are not meant to cause a panic or to cause any stir in the public. Your City Council is merely being proactive to err on the side of caution.”

Honolulu City Council Vice Chair Ikaika Anderson during discussions of Bill 69.
Honolulu City Council Chair Ikaika Anderson wants to avoid the spread of COVID-19. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Anderson canceled budget presentations by city departments that were scheduled for Friday, Monday and Tuesday.

Council members advanced a resolution that would allow Mayor Kirk Caldwell to dip into the city’s rainy day fund during “an occurrence, or imminent threat thereof, which results or may likely result in substantial injury or harm to the population in the City and County of Honolulu, or substantial damage to or loss of property of residents of the City and County of Honolulu.” The legislation doesn’t list pandemics or the coronavirus specifically.

“How we manage this is going to determine how we come out of this,” Mayor Kirk Caldwell said.

The mayor said if the coronavirus hits the city financially, money will first come out of departmental budgets. However, he wants the flexibility to use the city’s “fiscal stability fund,” which contains nearly $130 million, in case circumstances require it. The fund is currently restricted to natural disasters including earthquakes, floods and typhoons but does not include pandemics, he said.

City Councilmember Ann Kobayashi during housing/homeless committee meeting.
City Councilmember Ann Kobayashi worries the emergency funds could eventually be used for the rail project. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi asked the mayor if opening up the rainy day fund to respond to a broader set of crises would allow the money to be spent on the rail project.

“I believe some of the contractors and suppliers are saying because of the COVID-19 problem, some of the supplies won’t be coming in and the whole project, the train might be delayed,” she said. “If that happens and HART is not able to repay the money for some of those bonds, then are you going to be using this fund to repay the bonds because it is a disaster?”

Caldwell said he didn’t anticipate that happening.

“I don’t see us using any of the rainy day fund at all during my administration,” he said. “In the next administration, I don’t see it either, but perhaps that’s a guardrail you can put in there.”

A second reading is slated for Monday and a final vote is scheduled for the regular council meeting on Wednesday.

Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga voted to approve the measure with reservations. She wondered what the city was doing to avoid the spread of the virus among Oahu’s over 4,400 homeless people, many of whom live close together with limited access to hygiene facilities.

Councilwoman Kymberly Pine noted public restrooms often lack soap because people steal it.

Caldwell said officials are trying to figure out how to address the homeless population, which the city struggles to deal with even when there isn’t a global health crisis.

“We’re hoping we can make an announcement shortly about a location where we can take a homeless person who has tested positive,” he said, later adding that city officials are ramping up efforts to disinfect city facilities and buses. “We’re going to continue to roll out measures to make sure places are sanitized.”

Councilman Tommy Waters, chair of the public safety and welfare committee, said he worries about “the lack of testing and getting quick test results.” He scheduled a committee meeting to discuss those issues for Thursday at 10 a.m. It will be live-streamed on Olelo.

Meanwhile, Caldwell is suspending neighborhood board meetings. Anderson is ordering non-essential legislative branch employees to work from home through the end of the month. Anderson said council agenda items, for the time being, will focus on public safety, health and welfare and the continuity of government services.

Caldwell advised city employees last week to cancel all non-essential business travel to countries with high rates of COVID-19 infection including China, Iran, South Korea, Italy and others. Employees who have traveled to those “Level 3” countries are being asked to stay home for 14 days after returning to Honolulu and practice social distancing.

On Wednesday, the mayor ordered the cancellation of all non-essential business travel, including to the neighbor islands and travel requests that were already approved. Requests for essential travel will be vetted by Managing Director Roy Amemiya.

The coronavirus crisis is unfolding as Honolulu works to review Caldwell’s fiscal year 2021 budget proposal. Anderson said he’s in talks with state lawmakers to potentially make adjustments to the Sunshine Law that would enable council members to hold meetings and accept public testimony remotely. The council has to pass a balanced budget by June 15 or Caldwell’s proposal is automatically approved.

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