Chad Blair: How Opponents Of COVID Measures Are Stoking Local Resistance - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at cblair@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.


At precisely the same time that Hawaii enters its most dangerous phase of the pandemic — record-breaking new COVID-19 cases, rising positivity rates, a slump in inoculations — opposition to vaccine mandates and a general mistrust of government is on the rise locally.

The opposition is coming from organized groups but also elected officials and the Hawaii Republican Party.

Even as the highly contagious delta variant continues to spread, resistance to government and employer requirements to control the virus is solid and threatens to derail state and county goals of reaching herd immunity.

The dissent is also anchored in fundamental American beliefs of individual freedoms and rejection of state-sanctioned oppression, as they see it. It demonstrates that the ongoing tensions over COVID seen nationally in Congress and states like Florida and Texas exist in Hawaii Nei.

‘My Body, My Choice’

On Monday protests were held in Honolulu, Wailuku and Lihue to complain about Gov. David Ige’s decision last week to mandate vaccinations for state and county workers or, in the case of medical or religious exemptions, require regular testing at employee expense.

A similar assembly was held in Honolulu Friday, while groups opposing vaccines, mask mandates and lockdowns gathered in late July on Oahu, Maui and the Big Island.

What are the protestors saying?

“We the people are not the sheeple,” read the sign of one Hawaii County protester in late July. “Hawaii stands up for medical freedom,” read another.

Anti Vaccination demonstration held outside the Department of Health.
Anti-vaccination demonstrators outside the Hawaii Department of Health on Monday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

On Kauai, The Garden Isle quoted a protester exclaiming, “My body, my choice. It’s not a choice if you can’t work (or) you can’t send your kids to school. You can’t travel anywhere, we’re on an island. I can’t go anywhere by boat, that’s not practical. So mandates are not really suggestions if you don’t have a viable alternative. Paying for PCR tests every two days or two weeks is not a real option.”

The phrase “my body, my choice” has been used for decades by advocates of self-determination in reproductive rights. It’s now been co-opted by anti-vaxers and personal freedom fighters.

That same day, on Maui, a protester’s sign read “Delay tourism, not MIL Sports,” referring to the Maui Interscholastic League that represents 13 schools in Maui County. The Hawaii Department of Education announced Aug. 4 that student-athletes and athletic staff in public high schools must receive full vaccinations by Sept. 24 to participate in sports, a decision that has upset many in a state were high school sports are near sacrosanct.

As well, several hundred people gathered at Honolulu Hale Monday, many carrying signs displaying messages, as the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported, like “Let us choose,” “Live free or die,” “Masks are useless,” “A‘ole mandates” and “Freedom not fear.”

While the protests are small, the participants are passionate and the events are organized by groups like Knights of Aloha, which brought together dozens of people at the Hawaii State Capitol Friday, and For Our Rights, which led some of Monday’s protests.

The website for Hawaii’s chapter of For Our Rights says it’s a nonprofit formed in response “to blatant government overreach” in the wake of COVID-19: “We are committed to serving the people of Hawaii by providing resources and the education needed to stake claim to your God-given unalienable rights, enumerated in the Bill of Rights and protected under the Constitution of The United States of America.”

The website for Knights of Aloha says its vision is “to promote and uphold the values of faith, family, and freedom in Hawaii, the continental United States, and the rest of the world.”

Self-billed as “a grassroots political action committee,” it recently registered a super PAC with the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission.

Tyffiny Keliiaa, treasurer of the PAC, said Knights of Aloha plans to endorse candidates for the Legislature, governor and Congress “when the right candidates step up to the plate. We want to get people excited about something, to bring change.”

Keliiaa said the group was formed last fall in support of former President Trump, who Keliiaa says deserves credit for his policies.

“Our goal is to make Hawaii great again,” said Quirino Remigio Jr., the PAC’s chair, who promised more activism. “We plan to collaborate with the rest of the different coalitions that stand up for freedom.”

‘Bully Tactics’

The wave of protests are coming as leaders in the Hawaii Republican Party are speaking out about their adamant opposition to what they see as government overreach. On Friday the party issued a press release with statements from its top leaders.

“Stop treating people who choose to not get the vaccine as if they are ignorant,” said First Vice Chair Lynn Finnegan. “Threats and strong-arming to force people to get vaccinated is just not right.”

Said Party Chairwoman Signe Godfrey, “We fully support people who decided to get the vaccine and those who did not get the vaccine. Government bully tactics should not be allowed.”

Hawaii Republican Party Chair Signe Godfrey has been speaking out on vaccine mandates. Courtesy: Hawaii GOP

In the meantime, State Rep. Val Okimoto, the House minority leader, wrote to Ige last week saying she objected to vaccine messaging statewide and nationally.

“One of the most common reasons for people not getting the vaccine is institutional distrust and government hesitancy,” she said in her letter. “You fix this problem by continuing to encourage people to protect themselves and their loved ones and helping them through their hesitancies.”

Brett Kulbis, chair of the Honolulu County Republican Party, argued in a recent email to party members that the Ige administration throughout the pandemic “established a pattern of making arbitrary decisions that impacted the privacy and personal freedom of every resident. They have intentionally created a culture of fear and coercion that all residents should find shocking. This new assault is again nonsensical, not backed by science and unconstitutional.”

Kulbis believes that the governor has violated Article I, Section 2 of the Hawaii Constitution, which reads as follows:

“All persons are free by nature and are equal in their inherent and inalienable rights. Among these rights are the enjoyment of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and the acquiring and possessing of property.”

Kulbis said he feared what Ige might do next. His missive was embraced by Steve Yoder, the immediate past Kauai GOP County Chair.

“Our government chooses to be one sided and extremely narrow minded in their so-called medical solutions and approach to this crisis,” he wrote in an email this week sent to top Republicans (and me). “I’m opposed, as you are, to government telling us how we should live our lives. Our constitutional freedoms are once again being threatened in light of what’s construed to be best for the masses.”

The disdain for vaccine mandates even comes from the GOP’s most recent nominee for governor, Andria Tupola. Now on the Honolulu City Council, the former House minority leader disclosed that she is not vaccinated, although she said “she has some degree of natural immunity” to the coronavirus because she was infected last year during a trip to Utah.

An Anti-Immigrant Message Mixed In

The GOP is practically powerless in Hawaii, but my guess is that opposition to Ige will only intensify, especially as new mandates are issued.

Indeed, on Tuesday the governor said that social gatherings will again be capped at 10 people indoors and 25 outdoors, indoor capacity will be 50% for bars, restaurants, gyms and social establishments, and “mingling will not be allowed and masks must be worn at all times except when eating or drinking,” as Hawaii News Now reported.

Promotion for a Knights of Aloha rally. 

“We are hopeful that if people do their part and they maintain physical distancing, we can have the case counts drop more quickly than that, but clearly it would be up to all of us as a community to successfully fight against the transmission of COVID-19,” said Ige.

But I worry that too many people are sharing too much misinformation about COVID and our response to it.

On Friday Rep. Gene Ward, the Hawaii House minority leader emeritus, said in a press release that he had written a letter to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security asking for information on “how many illegal immigrants have been relocated” to Hawaii “after crossing the southern border.”

Ward said that “reports indicate” that migrants are not being tested for COVID “and are being redistributed into different states across our nation, which may pose a significant public health risk to our communities.”

Ward also wrote a similar letter to Libby Char, director of the Hawaii Department of Health. As of Monday, he said he had not heard back from either agency.

I asked Ward for his source on the “reports,” to which he replied a “national media outlet.” I pressed him to disclose which one, but Ward accused me of playing “a cat and mouse game” in an effort to label him politically.

“Don’t paint this as a right-wing news outlet,” he said. “This is about saving lives. This is not a political issue.”

Maybe. But it is the Republican governors of Texas and Florida who have pushed the illegal-immigrants-spread-COVID conspiracy, something that lacks any evidence.

“The editorial page of The Wall Street Journal and other right-leaning commentators have echoed the same argument, blaming large numbers of migrants crossing the southern border for the latest spike in COVID-19 cases,” NPR reported Tuesday. “But most doctors and public health experts said there’s little evidence to back that up.”

The last prominent Republican to run on an anti-migrant platform, you will recall, was Donald Trump. Florida Gov. DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott are both said to be interested in running for president in 2024. That’s politics.


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About the Author

Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at cblair@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.


Latest Comments (0)

No vaccine, no hospitalization.  Go home if your not vaccinated.  Your choice should not put everyone else at risk.  The hospitals should turn away the unvaccinated who chose their fate unwisely.  There are some exceptions but loveless ignorance is not one.  They don't care about anyone but themselves.  Sad truths.  Also, If you don't want to wear a mask you probably can't stand your own stink mouth.  Bad Hygiene can be reversed if you truly care about yourself and others around you.Pray for less stink mouths and more Love.  :)

desa · 3 months ago

The anti vaxxer protests and the ad hoc groups and PACs that organize them are part of the radical right united front.  Notice the flags and thequotes:  Live Free or Die and the Yellow Gadsden flags are markers of groups as radical as Boogaloo Bois and Proud Boys, the Three Percenters, and the so-called Patriots.  The racist right is co opting the anti-vax movement.  The use of the word "sheeple" is a tip off.  That is a word with origins in the neo-Nazi movement's primary text of revolution, The Turner Diaries.These are people who will not back down in the face of facts or illness, because their commitment is religious, not political.  The GOP has become a party in which identity determines how you vote and where you stand.  Being an "American" means being anti-government, anti-science, anti-Democrat, and pro-authoritarian.I feel sorry for the protesters children, maskless, on the street with them, and far from exercising their "freedom."  They are free only to get sick or to die and to expose others to the same risk.

Odile · 3 months ago

I am probably repeating what I wrote in response to an earlier article.  I am old enough to remember when polio crippled and even killed children.  Iron lungs, wheel chairs, crutches and braces for life.  I possibly had a mild case of polio and am fortunate that it did not blight my own life.  When the Salk and Sabin vaccines were developed and became available, our parents made sure that all of their children were vaccinated; and our schools helped facilitate this.  Polio disappeared, at least in the United States.  If there had been large numbers of anti-vaxxers in the 1950's and afterwards, we would still face polio's cruelty. Working cooperatively, by getting vaccinated, we defeated polio.  In contrast, anti-vaxxers are perpetuating Covid-19.

irwinhill · 3 months ago

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