On Jan. 2, a new mayor will take over Honolulu local government and the island’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
If Rick Blangiardi, the former Hawaii News Now general manager, is elected, he said residents can expect a mayor who is committed to keeping local businesses open safely and will focus on getting Oahu residents back to work.
If Keith Amemiya, a former insurance executive and nonprofit leader, is the winner, he pledges to carry out a data-driven pandemic response that is guided by experts and carried out in a transparent and predictable way.
In either scenario, citizens will be led by a businessman who has never held elected office.
Blangiardi, 74, retired from HNN last year after a decades-long career in broadcasting and several years coaching football at the University of Hawaii. He is campaigning on his leadership experience and views the job of mayor as the “CEO of the city.” Blangiardi, an independent, was the top vote-getter in the August primary. The top two candidates advance to the Nov. 3 general in the non-partisan race.
Amemiya, 54, is best known for heading the Hawaii High School Athletics Association for 12 years but was more recently an executive for Island Holdings. While the Democrat has close ties to the political establishment, he has never worked in government and is campaigning on his ability to provide a “fresh perspective.”
To get a sense of each candidate’s pandemic plan, Civil Beat asked both for their opinions on various aspects of Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s pandemic response.
The candidates agreed on several points, including the need for clearer communication, more sensible restrictions and faster delivery of relief money. In their answers, the candidates each focused on different elements of the crisis – Amemiya more on health, Blangiardi more on the economy. And they disagreed when it came to the role of police in enforcing emergency rules.
Amemiya said if he had been mayor this year, the city’s response would’ve looked a lot different from that of the Caldwell administration. Overall, Amemiya said he would give the city a C-minus grade for its performance. Barely passing.
“I know this is a difficult and unprecedented situation, but the city clearly can and must do better,” he said.
Blangiardi was reluctant to “second guess” the current administration because he said officials have information to which he is not privy.
“I think they’ve tried their best. This has been an unprecedented circumstance,” he said. “Nobody should pretend to have all the answers on this.”
The key to getting the economy back on track is to keep the virus in check, according to Amemiya. To do that, he said he would have initiated “much more” testing, contact tracing and isolation/quarantine options.
Proper isolation and quarantine space is especially important for protecting members of the Pacific Islander and Filipino communities who may live in multigenerational households, Amemiya said. He said he would increase outreach by sending medical professionals and translators to the hardest hit neighborhoods.
Blangiardi too expressed the need for localized outreach to those at-risk communities.
“We’ve just got to be able to get out there and educate people as much as possible,” Blangiardi said.
Both candidates agreed that the city’s response requires much better communication.
“The public is just too confused about what they can and cannot do, and it’s causing frustration and even anger sometimes,” Amemiya said. “We need to look at fact-based evidence and the opinions of experts. This is not something you can just go by feel, or wing it.”
Blanigardi said the communication about restrictions has been “erratic and inconsistent.”
“I wished I could’ve been in the room listening to the rationale, how they were coming up with these decisions,” he said. “But I don’t want to be one of those guys sitting in the stands saying ‘They should’ve called that play.’ You know, I’m not that person.”
Many of the rules just haven’t made sense, Amemiya said, such as banning families from visiting beaches and parks under a “solo activity” restriction.
“That’s just silly, quite frankly, when they are living together in one household the rest of the time,” he said.
Keeping big box stores open while shuttering small businesses that sell many of the same items is not fair, both candidates agreed.
Blangiardi said his “biggest concern” has been the shutdown of businesses that he believes could have stayed open safely.
“There are other businesses that don’t have a lot of traffic that would not have been at high risk or sources of creating COVID possibilities,” he said, citing furniture stores and car dealerships. “I think the blanket approach was really tough.”
Blangiardi said he did feel the shutdown in March and April was necessary for hospitals to prepare themselves, ensure the state had enough ventilators and equip the island to take on the crisis, he said.
“But earlier in the summer, we could have stopped, asking ourselves, ‘OK, what do we know about the science? What do we know about common sense? What is it that we need to do?’” he said.
At that point, it still made sense for tourism to be halted, he said.
“But there’s a lot of other commerce that goes on in this state that didn’t need to be locked down,” he said.
The uncertainty of new orders coming out every two weeks has been too difficult on businesses, Blangiardi said. The city should listen to what business owners have to say about the level of safety they’re able to provide, the candidate said.
While Amemiya also supports keeping businesses open with restrictions when possible, if case numbers creep up, he said he would act swiftly. In Amemiya’s opinion, the second Stay at Home, Work From Home order, implemented in early August, should have been issued earlier.
“It was clear the numbers were spiking with no sign of receding,” he said.
Amemiya said he would clearly communicate why the restrictions are in place and what specific benchmarks need to be met to lift them. Without that, the island is “in a state of limbo,” which puts a strain on families and businesses.
“To me, it’s always important to be fully transparent, to educate the public and give them goals to reach so we can reopen the economy and resume our daily lives as much as possible,” Amemiya said in an interview on Tuesday.
After Civil Beat interviewed Amemiya, Mayor Kirk Caldwell unveiled a plan that outlines how restrictions will be based on specific scientific markers going forward.
Amemiya said on Wednesday that he would’ve done that much earlier. He would also modify the plan so that if case counts drop, restrictions can be eased more quickly than under Caldwell’s plan.
Amemiya and Blangiardi both said they would’ve liked to see federal relief money be put in the pockets of individuals and businesses at a much faster pace.
Honolulu’s $25 million hardship relief program has had an especially hard time delivering funds to households. As of Wednesday, it had only disbursed approximately $4 million. The city and service providers have cited onerous documentation requirements as an obstacle.
Officials have since adjusted the requirements and are compensating service providers more for the time it takes to process applications. Previously, some providers were losing money.
“I understand there is a process, but we need to cut through the red tape because people are suffering more and more with each passing day,” Amemiya said.
Blangiardi said he supports spending more money to administer the funds faster.
“That should have a sense of urgency,” he said. “I think what people need more than anything is money in their hands.”
Blangiardi said the city should be more transparent about how it’s spending CARES money. The administration recently presented a list of planned and completed expenditures over $50,000 to the Honolulu City Council but Blangiardi said he had not seen that list yet.
To boost the economy, Blangiardi said he would work on streamlining the Department of Planning and Permitting, kicking off capital improvement projects and promoting other new construction.
“If you talk to people who are in the construction business and who lament what they go through, even in permitting, time is money and there’s been a lot of things held up incredibly long,” he said. “We’ve got to find ways to fast track things to get people going.”
Tourism will come back, Blangiardi said, but not right away.
“For me, the first thing that comes up is the jobs, and what can we do and get people going?” he said.
Amemiya’s plan for an economic rebound is: “Make Oahu safe from COVID again.”
“That’s lots of testing, contact tracing and isolation/quarantine,” he said. “And get CARES Act money to individual families and small businesses as soon as possible.”
Amemiya and Blangiardi both support Caldwell’s efforts to step up where he sees the state falling behind in testing, tracing and isolation. The city welcomed federal help for surge testing and is working to get a lab at the University of Hawaii off the ground; is in the process of hiring up to 250 contact tracers from local call centers; and is contracting with hotels to provide isolation rooms.
“If the state is moving too slow, that’s the right thing to do,” Amemiya said. “We can’t wait while COVID-19 spreads and our economy remains shut down.”
When it comes to police enforcement of the mayor’s restrictions, Amemiya said he would not replicate the Caldwell administration’s punitive approach.
In a one-month period between mid August and mid September, HPD officers wrote some 44,000 criminal citations. It’s an unprecedented level of ticketing that threatens to jail or fine people for alleged violations as innocuous as walking alone in a park. Most of the cases adjudicated so far, however, have been dismissed.
Officers are engaging in this ticketing spree with the help of nearly $15 million in overtime from the federal CARES Act plus another half million for new four-wheel vehicles they use to patrol beaches and parks.
That money should’ve gone towards helping struggling families and small businesses, Amemiya said.
“We also shouldn’t deploy our police officers to handle those types of situations and instead let them focus on more serious crimes,” Amemiya said.
“Instead of citations, we should focus on education and communication to the public and impress upon them the importance of being socially distant and not gathering in large groups.”
Asked about the record-breaking police enforcement of the mayor’s emergency orders, Blangiardi – who is endorsed by the police union – didn’t take a firm stance on it. He said he hadn’t read the news about HPD issuing 44,000 citations within a few weeks time.
“The right balance, or the sweet spot if you will, on so many things right now are judgment calls. And so, I don’t know,” he said. “I would come down on the side of, probably, more about encouraging … But I think that they were probably our best hope to help with social behavior modification, the kind of which we’ve never seen before.”
He added that some people who are fearful of COVID-19 may find it comforting to know the police are enforcing the mayor’s rules against “people who are not being as careful as possible.”
Blangiardi again said he didn’t know whether it was the right call to allocate CARES funds to HPD for overtime.
“I think what they felt was that asking people nicely to social distance, wear masks and wash their hands, once they started lifting the rules, wasn’t being adhered to,” he said. “And so who else would be the enforcer?”
When it comes to the pandemic response, Amemiya said the biggest difference between him and his opponent is that he has specific plans.
Amemiya pointed to the 10-page recovery plan on his website. Blangiardi’s website states his “single highest priority” as mayor will be rebuilding the economy after COVID-19 but offers no details on how to accomplish that.
“He hasn’t really articulated a game plan, and that’s a dangerous approach, as we’ve seen with our president,” Amemiya said. “This is a pandemic of epic proportions and the next mayor will need to hit the ground running from day one. The voters deserve to know the game plan to get us out of this economic crisis.”
Blangiardi said the biggest difference between him and Amemiya is leadership experience.
“I’ve got a lot of experience turning around failing organizations, decision making, understanding what needs to be a priority, how you approach it,” he said. “This is not about ‘who.’ It should be about ‘what.’ In that regard, on the ‘what’ side, my job experience is vastly different.”
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