Hawaii’s tourism, restaurant, bar and event industries are struggling, with more than 200,000 people having filed for unemployment.

But Gov. David Ige and other top state officials cautioned Monday that reopening businesses and ramping up the broader economic engine is still a ways off and will need to be phased in.

Alan Oshima, the state economic recovery and resiliency navigator appointed by Ige to help coordinate Hawaii’s post-COVID-19 economic recovery, said at a press conference Monday that reopening the economy would come in three phases.

First, the number of COVID-19 cases must be stabilized. Second, certain activities would be allowed again, but in sequence and gradually. A third phase would focus on supporting business and job growth, he said.

Also on Monday, members of a state House committee addressing economic recovery reported progress in establishing a framework for reopening Hawaii’s economy.

Waikiki Starbucks Coffee near the Kapahulu Avenue is is boarded up during Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. April 15, 2020.
A Waikiki Starbucks coffee shop near Kapahulu Avenue has been boarded up during the coronavirus pandemic. Businesses are anxious to reopen. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Hawaii Medical Service Association CEO Dr. Mark Mugiishi, who sits on the committee, said Monday that Hawaii was about a month away from having the systems in place needed to begin restarting the economy in phases. This involves the ability to conduct screening, test people who might have the virus and tracing people that came into contact with the carriers, as well as isolating infected people.

The system doesn’t have to be set up initially to meet demands of a fully open economy, Mugiishi told fellow members of the House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness on Monday.

For instance, once the system was in place, small steps could be taken at first, such as opening parks and beaches, and letting people eat in restaurants with limited capacity.

The four pillars – screening, testing, tracing and isolating – need to be in place, he said, but added that “they don’t need to be scaled up to a massive amount.”

The speed of opening would likely vary by county, he said.

Ige said Monday the islands aren’t yet ready to relax restrictions put in place to control the spread of the coronavirus but his administration will be releasing criteria for doing so in the next few days.

Ige said one of the first activities he’d like to allow to resume is elective medical procedures.

Ige imposed a stay-at-home order for the entire state through April 30, though he said it’s possible he may extend it.

Ige said he understood the frustration of some in the community who want restrictions lifted, acknowledging Hawaii went from having one of the nation’s lowest unemployment rates to the highest within a few weeks as the tourism industry shut down. He said the government wants to restore normalcy when conditions are right.

“We are looking for the path forward based on science and data that can assure the public safety as we look at this evolving situation of COVID-19,” Ige said at the news conference.

Bruce Anderson, the director of the state Department of Health, said the state needs to make sure that it has the situation under control for a sustained period of time before relaxing controls.

Hawaii will also need to have the infrastructure in place to quickly identify cases and close contacts as well as quarantine people quickly so the virus doesn’t spread, Anderson said.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green, who is also an emergency room physician, noted the state had news of two significant clusters just last week, one at Maui Memorial Medical Center and another centered on three McDonald’s restaurants in Kona.

“It really boils down to how safe we are from significant spread,” Green said. “There’s discussion obviously with how careful we are going to have to be with our travelers coming to Hawaii. But we defer those conversations into the future because we don’t actually don’t know yet that we’ve completely stamped out this virus.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author