LIHUE, Kauai — State and county officials on Thursday attacked Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell for suggesting in a television interview that Kauai could be used as a test for resumption of tourism in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The critics included Lt. Gov. Josh Green, a likely opponent of Caldwell in the 2022 governor’s race, and Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami. Green said he was “shocked at the idea of using the neighbor islands as a giant experiment to see if the virus kills people. It was a pretty stunning comment.”

Kawakami said the comments by Caldwell had blindsided him. “He just looked and sounded like he’s fatigued and worried,” Kawakami said. “When people are tired and they’re under stress, they tend to say and do things that are out of character.”

State and county officials criticized Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell for suggesting Kauai as a test case for reopening tourism. Flickr: Jordan Fischer

Local and state officials are grappling with a far broader dilemma of what it will take for tourists to start coming back. The concern applies to Kauai, in particular, because the island, so far, has fared better than the rest of the state during the COVID-19 crisis.

Kawakami said he knew Caldwell’s remarks would complicate life for Kauai public officials the moment he heard them. “This came out of left field,” he said. “It was another challenge that I felt was unnecessary.”

The dustup arose after the Oahu mayor said in an interview aired by Hawaii News Now on Wednesday that the major question the islands face is “how do we get back to some kind of tourist economy again. Part of the answer is through testing — not allowing people to spread the virus through our community.”

Caldwell then noted that Kauai has gone several days without recording any new COVID-19 cases. Accordingly, he said, Kauai “could be the first island. Kauai does have a visitor industry. What if you opened up to people going to hotels on that island? I think we can use some neighbor island as a test case to see how that works.”

On Thursday, Caldwell’s office tried to contain the damage. In a statement, he said: “When our state does eventually open back up to tourism, it will need to be done in a deliberate way, backed by science. 

“I mentioned Kauai because I believe the people of Kauai deserve recognition for all of the sacrifices they’ve made. When we do open our islands back up to tourism, we will all need to work together to come up with a well thought out plan, but not singling out any one island.”

Gov. David Ige released a statement saying: “The governor and mayors continue to work together and with many others to determine the path to recovery.”  

Thursday was the 11th consecutive day that Kauai has reported no new cases of COVID-19 on top of the 21 reported previously. One patient remains hospitalized. 

Dr. Christopher Flanders, executive director of the Hawaii Medical Association, said he was surprised by Caldwell’s comments. “My view is that this is a state issue, not a county-by-county issue,” Flanders said. “The governor may need to come out and square this statewide.”

Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami joint WAM Finance Meeting2.
Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami said that Caldwell appeared to be fatigued. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Flanders said health care organizations, both statewide and on the county level, are all trying to work on a plan for safe resumption of tourist activity. He said the medical association is planning an emergency meeting Monday night.

Flanders said “you should only open up tourism again when we have a method of having them (visitors) demonstrate they are COVID-negative for the last three days.”

Kawakami and Lance Sagawa, the regional executive for Kauai for Hawaii Health Systems Corp., said public and private sector Kauai officials have been working for weeks to outline a plan for safe reopening. Kawakami made clear that Kauai’s restrictions on movement and other measures will remain in place indefinitely and that such a plan is not imminent.

“There are a lot of conversations now internally,” Sagawa said. “There is coordination between the county, state, chamber of commerce, business and health care and I’m very confident a plan will be developed to answer the questions. Beyond that, it’s just too premature.”

Keeping Kauai safe from harm that might come from tourists, Kawakami said, is key to the planning.

“Everything when it comes to mitigating the effects of infected people getting on a plane and landing on our island has been discussed,” he said. “We’re looking to see if that’s achievable.

Green, an emergency room physician, said he was especially upset at the mayor’s comments advocating use of Kauai as a test for tourism because it ignores limitations on the island’s health care system that could easily be overwhelmed.

Kauai has only 15 ventilators and nine intensive care unit beds, he said. Correction: In an earlier version of this story, Green stated incorrectly that Kauai had nine ventilators and 5 ICU beds.

“It’s not a very good position to treat people like guinea pigs on a neighbor island,” he said.

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