Sharp divisions were on display Thursday as Honolulu’s mayor faced a wave of opposition to his decision to soon require proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test for entry to restaurants and many other establishments.
A City Council meeting was dominated by more than 250 people testifying online for more than four hours against the mandate, the vaccine or both, while doctors pleaded for help as the delta variant has pushed coronavirus cases to record levels and hospitals have been overwhelmed with an influx of patients.
When it was finally his turn to take the podium, Mayor Rick Blangiardi issued an ardent response, saying his administration was doing everything it could to contain the virus while avoiding another shutdown and calling those who refuse to get vaccinated a loud minority.
“We decided to do what we thought was a good plan,” he said. “If people want to engage, we want to create safe places.”
“We’re trying to do everything we can to protect the well-being, in the broadest definition of public health, of our community as we possibly can,” he added, noting that more than 1 million people have been vaccinated in the islands. “This handful of naysayers … want to act like they represent the majority when the majority has already spoken,” he said.
The opposition was apparently fueled by “call to action” social media posts urging people to testify and providing details about how to do so, along with the time of the 10:30 a.m. meeting of the council’s special transportation, sustainability and health committee. Some 6,000 pieces of written testimony also were submitted.
The testimony ranged from people raising medical concerns about the vaccines and noting that people who have been inoculated may still get infected to repeating false claims about the vaccines that have been widely debunked by federal regulators and the medical community. Anger also focused on the vaccine mandates as opponents accused the administration of stripping their constitutional rights away.
Natalie Olson, a nurse, warned the city risked losing “a lot of front-line workers” like her who refuse to get vaccinated because of scientific concerns.
Hawaii logged 1,068 new Covid infections on Thursday, although that figure included previous cases that had been omitted by an electronic lab reporting delay. There also were four more coronavirus-related deaths, raising the total to 606. In all, 437 Covid patients were hospitalized on Thursday, a high number that combined with non-Covid cases has pushed hospitals to capacity and beyond. More than 90% of the recent cases have been among unvaccinated people.
It wasn’t clear if the opposition was part of an organized campaign, but the Aloha Freedom Coalition and other anti-vaccine groups have organized several protests in recent weeks.
The meeting had been called to hear from doctors and health officials about the pandemic response.
Dr. Julius Pham of The Queen’s Medical Center said the state hasn’t reached the peak of its worst outbreak since the pandemic began in March 2020. The doctors also said hospitals have been forced to ration oxygen.
“We have more to go,” he told the City Council.
The council also approved two resolutions. One urged Gov. David Ige to reinstate Covid test requirements for travelers to Hawaii regardless of vaccination status.
Ige has said previously that he has no imminent plans to change the Safe Travels program, which allows those who can provide proof of vaccination to skip the otherwise mandatory test and quarantine requirements.
The other resolution urged the city administration and state of Hawaii to implement what it called a “COVID-19 health card” for establishments with a high risk of transmission.
Blangiardi already has announced that customers and staff must show their vaccination cards or the results from a negative Covid test before entering restaurants, bars, gyms and other venues on Oahu beginning Sept. 13, although many exceptions exist.
Meanwhile, nearly 50 protesters outside the meeting at Honolulu Hale screamed and pounded their fists on the chamber windows. Even those watching online could clearly hear the ruckus outside to the point where City Council member Radiant Cordero, who chairs the committee, halted the meeting for a couple of minutes so nearly 20 police officers lined up outside could calm things down.
Tensions also were high inside the hall.
Blangiardi described hospital workers “who have reached exhaustion, and a number of them have quit. Pretty much they are being asked to take care of a 90% ratio of people who are unvaccinated, who refuse to get vaccinated.”
“The kinds of things you’re listening to today, ‘It’s my right to get sick, and when I get sick you have to take care of me’ has a breaking point,” Blangiardi said. “A very damaging breaking point that has gotten lost in translation.”
Last week, a 44-year-old city worker, who was not vaccinated, died of Covid.
Council member Heidi Tsuneyoshi, who represents the North Shore, took offense, suggesting that the mayor should soften his stance on the ongoing issues and reminding him that he represents the city.
“I find it disrespectful that the people, who took their time to represent themselves today and the people who took the time for written testimony” are being disregarded, Tsuneyoshi said. “I don’t think that’s fair.”
In early August, Gov. David Ige issued an executive order that requires public employees to be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing.
Blangiardi said at least 8,800 of the 10,000 City and County of Honolulu employees have been either fully vaccinated or received their first shot.
At least 400 employees have not confirmed if they were vaccinated or not, according to Blangiardi, who said most were on extended leave.
He added that about 49 employees refused to get vaccinated “under any circumstances.”
“We said that we were going to do a possible termination, unpaid leave, and we’ll give everyone due process,” he said. “We’ve already issued the letter to one of those employees today. And we had some 900 medical and religious exemptions.”
“We never wanted to fire one person,” he continued. “But we put a line in the sand that tends to hold up on what we expect again for safety and well-being.”
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