The City and County of Honolulu allocated $35 million for Covid-19 testing and vaccine incentives in its latest blueprint for spending $386 million in federal relief funds, which was submitted Tuesday to the U.S. Treasury office.

The funds are part of the American Rescue Plan Act, which was signed into law in March by President Joe Biden to boost economic recovery efforts amid the pandemic that began early last year.

Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s plan also included $20 million for small businesses and nonprofit aid, $11 million to support local farmers through grants and more than $7 million for at-risk and homeless services, as well as millions more for other programs and city improvements.

“This plan strives at every opportunity to address inequities in society and directly address them with relief, investment, leadership and empowerment,” according to the report’s executive summary. “This includes making sure everyone has the basics for living including food, shelter, health care, and critical services.”

Pfizer COVID-19 vacciine in syringes at Blaisdell Concert Hall.
Expenditures were dominated by concerns about the rapid spread of Covid-19, with $15 million going to Covid testing and other services and $10 million for vaccine incentives. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

“This will require strengthening needed programs, investing in community partners, and establishing and restoring vital government services that were lost in the pandemic in ways that harmed some members of society much more than others,” the report added.

The ARPA funds were being distributed to Hawaii in two installments, with the first $193 million received in June and the rest to be sent next year.

The draft of the spending plan was the result of a months-long collaboration between Blangiardi’s administration, the Honolulu City Council and local stakeholders who weighed in on where the money should go. Although the draft was sent to Treasury to meet a deadline, city officials noted it could still change as the City Council has yet to vote on the plan.

“We are glad to see many of the priorities the Council and community flagged reflected in the mayor’s plan,” City Council Chairman Tommy Waters said in a statement. “Where there are pukas – like more services for vulnerable communities and funding for affordable housing — we hope to work with the mayor to make more funds available given the current crisis we’re facing.”

The mayor’s resolution regarding ARPA is expected to go before the City Council in upcoming weeks. The first quarterly project and expenditure report is due Oct. 31.

Spending Priorities

Under the category of affordable housing, the plan included $900,000 for property assessment programs and $1.5 million for the landlord engagement program, which provides a “link between landlords with vacant units and households experiencing homelessness or at risk of becoming homeless.”

The ultimate goal in using the federal funds is to provide community support, address economic impacts, modernize city operations and invest in island infrastructure, according to the report. 

The administration also acknowledged the need for flexibility as the pandemic often presents unpredictable challenges.

Hospitals have been overwhelmed as Hawaii recorded record-high infections and deaths in recent weeks due to the delta variant. On Tuesday, 553 Covid-19 cases were reported statewide, with 430 on Oahu, for a total of 63,502 cases since the pandemic began. In all, there have been 589 coronavirus-related deaths. 63.3% of the state’s population has been fully vaccinated. 

Officials have been trying to persuade more people to get a Covid shot by offering rewards as well as making it mandatory for state and county employees to get vaccinated or face weekly testing.

The city’s spending plan included $15 million for expanded Covid testing and other services as well as $10 million for vaccine incentives.

A crisis outreach response and engagement program that sends social workers to emergency calls got $3 million. Other community support services that provide language translation and assist individuals and their families in accessing state quarantine and isolation facilities, food, housing and other needs will receive $500,000.

Other notable expenditures are for city operations, such as $1.5 million for the Department of Planning and Permitting to investigate and reduce illegal vacation rentals and another $1.5 million to fund better enforcement of city park regulations.

During the community input process, Christy MacPherson, director of  PHOCUSED, an advocacy group for low-income families, expressed concern that not enough funding is going toward affordable housing. However, MacPherson said she understands the impact of the virus on other stakeholders.

“There are many needs out there at this time,” she said. “It’s a struggle for everyone. Our public health is at risk, and we need to take care of our health first. But I also believe that people working with families and with individuals who are deeply impacted by Covid really need extra funding during this time to make sure they can provide these services.”

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