LIHUE, Kauai — The public had some doubts about Kauai’s new mayor when he tried to develop a park into an affordable housing project.
Others were suspicious of his past support for a later abandoned project to build a controversial dairy on the south shore.
But Mayor Derek Kawakami’s COVID-19 pandemic response has garnered him a huge boost in political support, as well as some positive national press and some speculation that he may have a shot at the governor’s seat, should he choose to seek it.
As he enacted the harshest coronavirus restrictions in the state — a nightly curfew, highway checkpoints, a four-day work week for county employees — he did so while entertaining residents with his dance moves and teaching them how to make ice cream, bacon-flavored carrots and glass jar terrariums in humorous nightly videos intended to help residents “break the boredom” while sheltering at home.
Now, in the third month of a pandemic showing no end in sight, Kauai has tallied just 29 COVID-19 cases, no fatalities and only one hospitalized patient. It’s a relatively favorable position that health officials and political leaders say is likely due in part to both luck and the fact that the island implemented some restrictions earlier than the rest of the state.
The same stiff policies designed to thwart the virus have now allowed Kauai to reopen beaches and bars faster than other counties.
But a reminder that the public health threat is still lurking arrived last week when the county reported its first coronavirus disease cluster following a nearly 10-week absence of new cases.
Kawakami said he stands by his strict policies to protect the health of Kauai residents. Although many of these restrictions on daily life have been rolled back, he cautioned members of the public not to let down their guard.
“What we’re trying to avoid at every cost is another stay-at-home order,” Kawakami said. “We don’t want another disruption in our economy. And the bottom line is, in order for us to be successful and not have more economic destruction, people are going to have to meet government half way and do the right thing when nobody’s watching.”
The coronavirus pandemic has proven to be a surreal challenge for Kawakami, who was elected mayor in a landslide victory in 2018 after Bernard Carvalho, the longest-serving mayor in Kauai history, termed out after 10 years in office.
He ran his election campaign on a platform to boost government transparency, bolster local business and crack the island’s affordable housing problem. But the focus of his second year occupying the county’s top office suddenly switched to more dire straits: slowing the stubborn spread of a deadly virus and preventing the island’s health care system from collapsing under pressure.
Kawakami does daily video updates to Kauai residents.
But a more unguarded version of Kawakami is on display in his nightly “Stay Home Kauai” videos posted to the Instagram account he shares with his wife. Dressed in a T-shirt, he showcases his empathy with residents’ fears amid a public health disaster and so much economic uncertainty while also making them laugh.
On May 4, celebrated as Star Wars Day by some, Kawakami came out on camera wielding a lightsaber. In another video he demonstrates a talent from his childhood: Arm farts.
A surfer and self-described adrenaline junkie, Kawakami, 42, said he performs best in the face of precarious situations.
As a kid, he wanted to be a stuntman. And now, as Kauai’s top political leader, he’s applying his ability to stay calm under pressure to the task of coordinating the county’s response to a mysterious disease that strikes people and places with hit-or-miss devastation.
From the start, Kawakami asserted that Kauai is unique from the other islands. Its small size and scale of public health resources called for a swift and strict pandemic response, he said.
“There’s no do-overs in this situation,” said Kawakami, who is a third-generation Kauai resident and the third Kawakami to occupy a seat in the state House representing the Garden Isle. He also served on the Kauai County Council.
“There’s no, ‘Oops, we made a mistake. Now we can go and fix it,’” he said. “When there’s a disaster involved, the only option is to give our all. That’s what we’ve been focused on, not so much on making people happy but on keeping people safe.”
On social media, residents are lauding Kawakami’s decisive, down-to-earth leadership style and urging him to run for governor.
The support is not only flattering, Kawakami said, but essential to his mission to protect the health and safety of Kauai residents in the face of a virus with no vaccine, no cure and limited testing mechanisms.
“You have to have community buy-in or this doesn’t work,” he said. “We don’t have the ability to micromanage everyone’s personal behavior.”
In some ways, Kauai’s mayor has been out front of the state’s battle against the coronavirus from the beginning.
Announcing that “Kauai is on vacation,” Kawakami discouraged visitors from traveling to Kauai — a move that preceded statewide efforts to quell tourism. Kawakami was also the first Hawaii mayor to advise residents to wear homemade face masks in public, even before it was recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Hawaii Department of Health.
“He was really astute with doing those two things that I think have proven across the country and even around the world to be really important acts of leadership,” said JoAnn Yukimura, who was the island’s mayor when Hurricane Iniki struck in 1992.
Kawakami said he quickly issued these and other aggressively stark measures in light of two distressing facts.
Kauai, which has a population of 72,000, has only 15 ventilators and nine intensive care unit beds. And, at the start of the pandemic, the island didn’t have enough N95 masks for its health care workers and first responders.
“The reality is we’re on our own,” Kawakami said. “And this island is small enough where everyone knows each other so it’s very personal.”
The mayor said he needed to buy time to slow the spread of the virus and build up an inventory of personal protective equipment.
So he prohibited residents from leaving their homes for eight hours each night and set up highway checkpoints operated by police and the National Guard to discourage nonessential road travel during the day.
But Kawakami also wanted to make Kauai seem unappealing to visitors since he has no power to halt them from coming to the island. So he enacted a new rule that required non-residents to buy a day-use permit to visit any beach. And he asked all hotel accommodations to have their guests stay within the boundaries of the resort.
None of these bold measures were adopted elsewhere in the state.
Mel Rapozo, a county special investigator who lost to Kawakami in the 2018 mayoral election, said he attributes Kauai’s relatively low virus case count to the mayor’s hawkish response.
“I think his actions, with the early curfew and all the restrictions that he put in place early on, set the tone for all of us to take this virus seriously,” Rapozo said. “I wish the governor and the state had taken action first. But to his credit, he didn’t wait.”
Incidentally, some of the same restrictive policies that are working to hamper the virus are also alleviating a series of longstanding complaints by residents related to astronomical levels of tourism, which suddenly has stopped.
Beaches are no longer overcrowded. Roadways are no longer clogged by the crush of tourist traffic. Some residents say they feel as though they’ve won back the island, at least for now, from the unfettered expansion of tourism.
Whether Kawakami can guide the island into a post-pandemic era of sustainable tourism will be a future test of his leadership.
Disasters can be make or break moments for politicians.
Kawakami’s tough measures to combat the coronavirus have not been unanimously popular, however.
The temporary closure of nonessential businesses and a ban on lounging at the beach led to regular protests on the green in front of Kauai’s Historic County Building.
Kauai Police Chief Todd Raybuck said the demonstrations have been peaceful, never exceeded a few dozen people and largely included worried business owners and those concerned about government overreach.
Some participants, wooed by conspiracy theories, voiced objections to widespread vaccine use and charged that government leaders have fabricated the COVID-19 crisis.
“When the mayor put the curfew in place, there was a lot of conversation about the negative impact that it would have on the community and the potential for anger and frustration over such a drastic measure — but we didn’t see any real pushback,” Raybuck explained.
“In fact, people were talking on social media about how great it was to finally sleep in peace and not hear cars racing up and down the highway and sirens and ambulances and all that stuff going at night.”
Kawakami relies on the expertise of a team of experienced state and county workers. These public health workers, county planners and first responders just two years ago assembled to address the mass devastation of homes, businesses and resorts caused by an overnight storm that produced the most rainfall recorded during a 24-hour period in U.S. history.
Kawakami said he honed his collaborative leadership style in the image of his father while working at the Kauai grocery chain Big Save, which his family owned for 85 years until Times Supermarkets bought out the business in 2011.
“I feel very good about making these decisions,” he said, “because I’m not making them alone.”
County Councilwoman Felicia Cowden commended Kawakami for his work to keep the island safe. Now she said he needs to be equally responsive to the consequences of the island’s economic devastation.
Considering how slow the state was to approve unemployment claims, Cowden said she would have liked to see Kawakami reopen the Kauai economy faster, especially for professions like landscaping and carpentry.
“By nature you only get so close to somebody with a weed wacker,” she said.
One of Cowden’s fears is that local businesses and families won’t be able to make it — and outside opportunists with bigger purse strings will come in and take over properties and businesses.
“I don’t want us to wake up six months from now, or a year from now, with different ownership and find that we have been replaced,” she said.
Kauai Chamber of Commerce President Mark Perriello said there has been both understanding and disgruntlement from the island’s business community over the economic costs of restrictions Kawakami put in place to safeguard public health.
But largely, Perriello said local business owners have been supportive of the mayor’s pandemic response.
Perriello said it’s not lost on the mayor that some industries are taking a bigger hit than others. He said he was impressed that Kawakami convened the Kauai Economic Recovery Strategy Team to address the economic impacts of the pandemic within 12 days of implementing a mandatory nighttime curfew. This, he said, shows that the mayor was considering the sacrifices of local business owners from the get-go.
“I think much more highly of him than I did at the beginning of all of this because he was decisive, he made decisions that weren’t always easy but were the right decisions to make,” Perriello said. “I think that he really saw a way through this and navigated it pretty brilliantly.”
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom that provides free content with no paywall. That means readership growth alone can’t sustain our journalism.
The truth is that less than 1% of our monthly readers are financial supporters. To remain a viable business model for local news, we need a higher percentage of readers-turned-donors.
Will you consider becoming a new donor today?