This is a time for leadership to emerge, coalesce and put people before politics.

Hawaii’s leaders are in uncharted waters, where lifesaving actions are required at the risk of permanently destroying an economy that took more than a century to build. With stakes this high, we thought it was time to provide an overview of COVID-19’s impact on Hawaii and where we’re going from here.

We suspended the 2020 Legislative Session about eight weeks ago, but the work of our 51 representatives continues.

The Speaker’s Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness, which is comprised of legislators and business and community leaders, has sobered us with the news of state revenue losses of $1.5 billion, nearly 250,000 jobs lost, and an economy that has come to a virtual standstill while miles-long lines for testing and food have become the norm on the nightly news.

However, this committee has also built confidence with assurances that our supply chains remain uninterrupted. This committee also serves as a spearhead for the recovery of our economy while also watching for things to avoid as we move to rebuild our economy.

House members during floor session.
House members during a floor session in 2019. On Monday lawmakers will resume their interrupted session to focus on the priority needs of the state during the pandemic. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The 51 members in the state House of Representatives have also been actively meeting with their districts via virtual town hall meetings and providing constituent services, particularly assisting our small businesses and individuals in getting their unemployment checks processed and in the mail.

The problems within the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations’ Unemployment Office have been notorious and are mirrored throughout the nation. A small cadre of legislators and legislative staffers have stepped in to directly assist with processing claims, along with hundreds of other state employees.

Seeing Hawaii With New Lenses

While it’s fortunate we have boosted the number of employees in the office by more than 300 percent, the problems with the department’s technology underscore the need for reform for the future of Hawaii’s workforce.

We have also learned valuable fiscal lessons. The COVID-19 crisis has given us new lenses through which to view ourselves and our tourism-dependent economy.

For example, many in Hawaii were on the verge of reaching a high tide of resentment over the 10 million tourists trampling our environment. Some were unhappy with vacation rentals in their neighborhoods but we tolerated it — after all unemployment was low, there was food on the table and most didn’t rely on the food bank or unemployment benefits to stay afloat.

A victory will not be political, but it will be for all livelihoods.

Our economy relies too heavily on tourism and although we will welcome visitors once they can safely return, the cry to “diversity our economy” will be even louder when the Legislature gets back to business.

Diversification will not be easy but it is time we strategically strengthen the foundations for a more robust economy through other options and opportunities outside of the vulnerable and easily volatile tourism economy. Food security, health care, space, sports, diplomacy, technology and becoming the “Hollywood of the Pacific” are a few strategic advantages and industries we could continue to nurture.

The Legislature will reconvene briefly on May 11 to settle a number of immediate budget and fiscal issues while continuing to monitor the developing revenue picture and federal landscape. Top of mind will be how we transition to a new normal and still make Hawaii the safest place in the world for our employees to return to their work stations as well as visitors to return to our shores.

For now we have successfully maneuvered through most of the health concerns presented by the COVID-19 crisis, but our victory will not be a political one, or for politicians, it will be a victory that credits the aloha our people showed each other while serving and preserving the lives — and livelihoods — of others.

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