Starting in early April, with Hawaii’s economy paralyzed by executive orders from Gov. David Ige and Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, a committee of business and political leaders and economists from the University of Hawaii were already starting to craft a plan for reopening.

First, on April 6, Sumner LaCroix, a UH professor emeritus presented a paper to the committee, called the House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness. The paper outlined a reopening strategy based on a model developed by the American Enterprise Institute.

Then Dr. Mark Mugiishi, the chief executive of HMSA and a member of the committee, assembled a team to perform the yeoman’s work of outlining the steps needed to craft a plan for reopening the economy.

By late May, when Gov. David Ige’s economic recovery czar Alan Oshima announced the broad plan for reopening Hawaii, the document reflected many of the things that Mugiishi’s team had been discussing during weekly updates before the House select committee. Included was a color-coded matrix that’s central to the administration’s policies and procedures for deciding when to tighten restrictions on activities and when to loosen.

House Committee on COVID19. Dr David Mugiishi, President and CEO of HMSA during House committee meeting on COVID-19. July 13, 2020
Dr Mark Mugiishi, President and CEO of HMSA during House select committee on COVID-19 meeting, July 13, 2020. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

While Hawaii still has not opened completely to visitors from outside the state, the local economy has opened since the dark days of April when most people were stuck at home. And Mugiishi’s work was a big part of that.

While the Legislature might be most often associated with its power to pass laws, it has another, more general power, says Rep. Della Au Belatti, the Hawaii House Majority Leader who is also an active voice on the committee — “the power to convene.”

In the committee’s case, it includes a broad range of political, business and nonprofit leaders. Members include Peter Ingram, Hawaiian Airlines’ chief executive; Lisa Maruyama, president of the Hawaii Alliance of Nonprofit Organizations, and key members of the Ige administration, including State Epidemiologist Sarah Park and Oshima, the economic navigator.

COVID-19 Health-based Community Response Matrix

“The Legislature’s role is to be a problem solver,” said House Speaker Scott Saiki, who co-chairs the committee with Bank of Hawaii’s chairman and chief executive, Peter Ho. “And this committee fits that role.”

High-Level Forum

It’s also become a forum for high-level discussion about the state of Hawaii’s economy and public health. Speakers at Monday’s bimonthly Zoom meeting included U.S. Rep. Ed Case, who discussed the status of the latest round of federal stimulus money, which Case said is stalled in the Senate, and Ige, who discussed Hawaii’s 14-day quarantine for people traveling to Hawaii, which Ige now says he will extend through August.

“COVID-19 is not going away,” Ige said at one point. “This is a marathon not a sprint.”

The committee isn’t just a forum for updates from elected officials. Carl Bonham, executive director of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization, typically kicks off the committee meetings with an update on the economy from a recent UHERO report.

That often informs the committee’s work.

For example, with the economy stagnant and tourism shut down, Bonham was one of the first people in the state to sound the alarm about a fiscal cliff coming later this month, when unemployed workers will no longer receive a $600 per week income boost from the federal government.

Such work, Saiki said, “has highlighted how important UHERO is for the state.”

It also prompted a subcommittee to get to work early looking at how to prevent people from falling off the economic cliff. Led by James Koshiba of the nonprofit housing advocacy group Hui Aloha, the subcommittee on housing drafted a report showing how a housing fund could help soften the fall for people.

House Committee on COVID19. Dr. Carl Bonham from UHERO presents a report to the committee during meeting televised by Olelo.
Carl Bonham, executive director of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization, usually kicks off the COVID-19 committee meetings with a briefing on the economy. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

That report became the foundation for a legislative appropriation of $100 million for a housing fund from federal relief money, Saiki said. That will provide up to $500 per month, and unemployed people also can receive another $100 on top of state unemployment payments.

All this won’t make up for the $600 per week in federal money that dries up at the end of July. But it’s something.

“I think people really are trying to problem-solve,” Saiki said.

In many ways, the housing fund and $100 per week for unemployed people is within the purview of the Legislature, which has power to pass a budget.

What’s perhaps more notable is the House committee’s ability to work with the governor without passing laws.

Mufi Hannemann, a member of the committee who now heads the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, was formerly Honolulu’s mayor. He said part of the committee’s influence comes from having a broad range of members and making sure they all have a voice.

“This is one government organization or committee that really has reached out to make sure that we’re all involved and all engaged,” said Hannemann, who is running to be Honolulu’s mayor again.

It’s useful to have a broad range of people from the community working on issues and crafting solutions, Hannemann said.

Saiki said part of the committee’s goal is to work out solutions for problems and show wide support behind them – something he hopes can be useful and persuasive for Ige, who is known for a deliberative and consensus-oriented leadership style.

House Committee on COVID19. Speaker Scott Saiki mediates meeting on Olelo.
House Speaker Scott Saiki said he hopes the committee’s work can inform Gov. David Ige, and show broad consensus for tough policy decisions. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Saiki said he wishes Ige would use the committee’s work more to provide cover for decisions. But, he said, “It can be difficult to make decisions when circumstances change by the hour sometimes.”

Still, a benefit of having large, private institutions involved is that they have expertise they can bring to bear on problems.

HMSA is a case in point. As the state’s largest private health insurer, HMSA has been concerned about the long-term health consequences of the COVID-19 crisis, including the economic fallout from the shutdowns, said Mugiishi, HMSA’s chief executive.

HMSA also has expertise in managing projects that require thoughtful planning and the creation of practical work plans. HMSA put together a team of a dozen staff who started crafting a work plan that would look at milestones Hawaii should reach before taking steps to lift stay-at-home orders or open the economy more broadly.

“Everyone’s building the plane as you’re flying it.” — Dr. Mark Mugiishi, HMSA CEO

Devising criteria for opening or staying open included things like calculating the numbers and rates of new cases that Hawaii’s health care system could handle without being overwhelmed.

The HMSA team also reached out to the University of Hawaii’s nursing school to find people who could be trained as contact tracers – the people charged with quickly tracking down all the people who come into close contact with patients who test positive for the virus. Identifying and containing such clusters is key to controlling the virus, Mugiishi said.

Mugiishi credited Ige for assembling a group to work out details of what ultimately became Hawaii’s scheme for reopening. It included Lt. Gov. Josh Green, a medical doctor who has been part of the administration’s response team, and Gen. Kenneth Hara, who is the head of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.

Green commended Mugiishi’s work.

“Dr. Mugiishi has been very thoughtful about how we address COVID and I greatly value his input,” Green said in a text message. “He is providing indispensable practical, real world advice.”

For his part, Mugiishi said he, other members of the committee and the administration are all often dealing with unprecedented issues.

“Everyone’s building the plane as you’re flying it,” he said.

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