This is the wrong place to be cavalier about disease. Foreign introduction of highly contagious and deadly diseases into the Hawaiian islands had a devastating impact on the population and Hawaiian Kingdom.

Before Western contact, the population of Native Hawaiians was estimated to have been 400,000 to 500,000 (with a range of estimates from 100,000 to 1 million). Over the last two centuries, this population collapsed by 98%, largely as the result of introduced diseases like measles, polio, tuberculosis, chickenpox, Hansen’s disease, cholera, mumps, typhoid and many others.

The impact of these diseases was particularly devastating to Hawaiians, who as a result of their geographic isolation in the Pacific, had no previous exposures or resistance to such virulent pathogens. Therefore, these islands are not necessarily strangers to a disease with high transmissibility like COVID-19.

While the population of those with some Hawaiian ancestry has reached pre-contact numbers, the impacts and historical trauma of disease in the islands remains.

Protests To Reopen Hawaii Are Offensive

Throughout the history of the kingdom, the monarchy often took action to protect residents as best they could. Action by the government to respond to public health issues is not new. It’s an important part of governing.

While protests to reopen have been offensive, we do need to start discussing what parts of life can be resumed. Allan Parachini/Civil Beat/2020

Protests have begun around the state to reopen businesses. This is not an unimportant discussion to have. The economic impacts of this situation grow daily.

Yet, the leaders of these protests advertised their efforts in a most offensive way, using images from a black justice rally and the title “Ku‘oko‘a Rally” to imply support from the Hawaiian community. Hawaiian community leaders were quick to condemn the event, denouncing the misappropriation of Hawaiian language and culture for an event that was so blatantly offensive to a people who were historically devastated by infectious disease.

Subsequent events were clearer about their origins and political leanings. And while these protests, particularly in their failure to adhere to social distancing and other recommended precautions, are an affront to the many front-line workers and health workers risking their own safety to respond to the crisis, it is important to think hard about how to reopen Hawaii.

What Parts Of Life Can Restart

On Wednesday, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell announced that some businesses would begin to reopen Friday. This includes the following business types and activities (with certain conditions):

  • Certain real estate services;
  • New and used car and truck dealerships;
  • Automated service providers;
  • Mobile service providers;
  • Services provided on a one-on-one basis;
  • Public and private golf courses;
  • Gravesite visits.

Perhaps there is also an opportunity to consider reopening other small businesses and locations in the near future. As long as they complied with social distancing requirements and other safety protocols such as face masks and regular cleaning, this could include:

  • Small retail businesses limited to one to two employees working at any one time;
  • Elective or routine medical visits, with telemedicine appointments employed whenever possible and appropriate;
  • Parks, as long as groups do not exceed 10 individuals;
  • Offices, as long as any employees who may be vulnerable to the disease (i.e., persons over 65 or immunocompromised) shall not be required to return;
  • Religious activities (i.e., Bible study, confession, small masses, counseling, etc.) as long as groups do not exceed 10;
  • Cafes and restaurants on a very limited basis as long as takeout and delivery remain the preferred option, and seating is limited in such a manner as to employ spatial distancing and other strict safety protocols. This could include limiting the number of people in parties, requiring thorough cleaning between seatings and spacing parties apart. The National Restaurant Association published guidance this week on reopening safely.

All these businesses and activities should be empowered to implement safety protocols necessary to keep their employees and customers safe. This must include the right to refuse service, particularly to individuals who may be displaying symptoms.

No one wants there to be more cases here. Everyone wants to see the numbers stay low and for Kauai’s success of no new cases and no active cases on island be replicated throughout the state. No one wants to see anyone else get sick; we all collectively hope there are no more deaths. And working together toward that goal should be the first and foremost priority.

Yet, we must all commit to a data-driven approach that walks us toward our new normal. Leaders should not be focusing on dates on a calendar. Rather, the way forward should be driven by benchmarks that are clear and transparent.

The CDC has been publishing new guidelines on how to proceed safely. It would be helpful to have local industry-based working groups, in addition to the various government task forces, who can discuss safety protocols and industry-specific issues.

The overwhelming majority of business owners are not only concerned about economics, they are deeply concerned about the safety of their employees and customers. And I have no doubt that these same individuals would work diligently to protect those same people.

I’ll be honest. I’m beginning to wonder if things will ever go back to the way they were.

But a greater, more transparent dialogue about our “new normal” is needed now. For the many businesses in the state that received Small Business Administration stimulus funds, there are important benchmarks and requirements that business owners have to meet for the funding to be “forgivable.” This is going to be extremely difficult for many business owners, especially those who find themselves with employees making more money from unemployment insurance and the federal supplement than they did when employed.

I’ll be honest. I’m beginning to wonder if things will ever go back to the way they were. It simply may not be possible if effective medical treatment of COVID-19 is not discovered. Social distancing, a largely virtual world, vigilant health and safety protocols, may become our new world.

If so, then we must learn to settle into it. We will need to increase technology and connectivity significantly to allow for equity in distance learning and virtual work. We may need to permanently restrict travel, or at least create protective measures that mitigate and control COVID-19 from being brought into the islands. This could mean thermal scans or extended quarantine orders. We will need to properly stock and prepare all health resources.

None of us wanted this. None of us like this. But a new world has arrived, one that swept over us all in a manner that was swift, relentless, and devastating. And as hard as it is to face, we need to start preparing for the possibility that this new world may be here to stay.

What stories will you help make possible?

Since 2010, Civil Beat’s reporting has painted a more complete picture of Hawaii — stories that you won’t find anywhere else.

Your donation, however big or small, will ensure that Civil Beat has the resources to provide you with thorough, unbiased reporting on the issues that matter most to Hawaii. We can’t do this without you.


About the Author

  • Trisha Kehaulani Watson
    Trisha Kehaulani Watson is a Kaimuki resident, small business owner, and bibliophile. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Hawaii and J.D. from the William S. Richardson School of Law. She writes about environmental issues, cultural resource management, and the intersection between culture and politics. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can follow or contact her on Twitter at @hehawaiiau.