Hawaii business, medical and political leaders on Monday urged the public to wear masks, practice social distancing and get vaccinated to avoid reverting to restrictions on businesses that could derail a fragile economic recovery.

The state is facing its most intense wave of COVID-19 infections since the pandemic began more than a year ago. After a lull in cases that led some to think the worst was over, the virus now is spreading rapidly because of a highly transmissible mutation called the delta variant. Members of the House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness met on Monday to discuss the implications.

Chair of the Coronavirus Committee Speaker Scott Saiki and left, CEO Bank of Hawaii Peter Ho during committee hearing at the Capitol.
Chaired by Bank of Hawaii chairman and chief executive Peter Ho, center, and House Speaker Scott Saiki, the House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness, shown here in March 2020, convened for the first time since March of this year to address the delta variant. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“Things have changed. We’re not looking in the rearview mirror anymore at this pandemic,” said Carl Bonham. “It’s right in front of us.”

The committee’s meeting was the first since March and shows just how problematic the delta variant has become. Co-chaired by Rep. Scott Saiki, Hawaii’s House Speaker, and Peter Ho, Bank of Hawaii’s chairman and chief executive, the committee includes a range of lawmakers and executives from the private sector, including hotels, unions and business associations.

Saiki said it was important to try to get ahead of the variant before it’s necessary to impose more restrictions on businesses and social activities. The CDC already has changed its guidance on masks, advising people in places with surging delta cases to wear masks indoors even if they are fully vaccinated. Although the guidance is not binding on the states, Saiki said there’s a concern Hawaii could go backward, imposing restrictions that could hinder the state’s tentative economic recovery.

“People are concerned we’re going to revert,” he said. “The tough nut that needs to be cracked is how to vaccinate more people.”

The delta variant is a major issue because it spreads easily, said Dr. Jill Hoggard Green, president and chief executive of The Queens Health Systems. One person infected with the original COVID-19 virus generally infects one to two others, she said. But a person with the delta variant generally infects seven to nine.

This has caused the rapid increase in cases in Hawaii. Hawaii reported 452 new cases on Sunday and 365 on Monday. Hospitalizations are also surging. At Queen’s, for instance, hospitalizations had risen to more than 50 by Monday compared with the low single digits two weeks ago, Green said.

The good news, Green said, is that the playbook for slowing the spread is simple: for people to get vaccinated, wear face masks and practice social distancing.

“All of us, whether we’re vaccinated or not, need to mask up,” she said.

Business Activity Remains Vibrant Despite Variant

Other good news from the meeting was that the latest surge in cases isn’t hurting the economy. Data shows people are still traveling to Hawaii, dining out, shopping and the like, Bonham said, even though case counts are rising. Green and Vara said the vast majority of cases are among residents, including people returning home from trips, and not from tourists.

Still, Bonham noted, Hawaii’s jobs recovery is only 40% complete, and about 122,000 workers are underemployed, working fewer hours than they want, for instance, or not working at all.

While there are no signs government officials will impose new restrictions on businesses, some private firms are starting to do so on their own. Hawaii’s largest healthcare providers on Monday said they will require workers to receive vaccines. These include Hawaii Pacific Health, which operates Kapiolani and Straub medical centers; Queen’s; Adventist Health, which operates Castle Hospital; and Kaiser Permanente.

In addition, Saiki said he plans to propose a similar mandate for House members and staff, with a possible exception for those who agree to periodic testing.

Ray Vara, president and chief executive of Hawaii Pacific Health, said at this point, it’s up to the public to decide whether to control the illness or let it spread.

“As a community, this is completely in our control,” he said.

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