Mayor Harry Kim doesn’t want to shut the county down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, saying instead he’s promoting a community effort to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus on the island.
“We can’t let fear control us, and I do see that happening. We’re going to attack our enemy instead of running away from it,” Kim said Monday after a briefing of County Council members at the county Civil Defense center in Hilo. “This is a community issue and it’s going to take community involvement to mitigate the impact on this island. … We’re making sure we’re reaching out to all parts of the community to mitigate this disease instead of just closing things.”
No one has tested positive on the Big Island to date.
Rather than require businesses to close and ban community events outright, Kim favors a two-step process: first questioning whether the event should go on. And if it can go on, listing steps to be taken to mitigate risk.
One example are the cruise ships still visiting the island. Kim said he visited Norwegian Cruise Line’s Pride of America and was impressed with the measures they were taking to protect the public, including increasing sanitation procedures, spritzing passengers with de-contaminants, eliminating buffet lines and promoting social distancing.
While Cruise Lines International Association members, Norwegian Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean are voluntarily suspending cruises, other cruise ships will still visit Hawaii ports.
One slated for Friday at the Hilo port, Holland America’s Maasdam, has been rejected at other Polynesian ports, but will stop to unload its passengers so they can fly home from their shortened voyage. The cruise ship holds 1,258 passengers but there are about 800 abroad, according to the (London) Telegraph.
The mayor said social media discussions about blockading the port Friday, such as was successfully done against the Superferry off Kauai in 2007, is “counterproductive.”
“What do we do, stop the airlines from coming in, too?” he asked. “They bring in more passengers.”
A state Department of Transportation spokesman said Monday evening there have been no COVID-19 cases reported on the ship.
“The ship had a port call for Hilo, however that reservation has been canceled,” said spokesman Tim Sakahara. “HDOT is working with the vessel’s agent regarding a new reservation, however Honolulu Harbor is the preferred port HDOT will accept.”
Another example was the Big Island International Marathon on Sunday. Instead of canceling it, mitigation measures were taken: a staggered start, plenty of sanitizer and medals being picked up rather than draped over the winners’ heads.
Council members came to Civil Defense for a briefing and question-and-answer session, but on the advice of their corporation counsel about possible Sunshine Law violations, did not attend the meeting as a group. Instead, four council members — less than a voting majority — participated for two half-hour sessions.
Puna Councilman Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder, who requested the briefing, sought a down-and-dirty session outside the public spotlight to get answers about what he sees as a public health crisis.
“This is going to be trying for the community on all levels. This is not a time for politics; this is a time for answers going forward,” Kanealii-Kleinfelder said. “A lot of us have a lot of questions.”
While the mayor has emergency powers granted under state and county proclamations, the council’s role is less defined. But council members see their advantage in being able to swiftly communicate with their constituents in the the nine council districts spread over the island. The council also controls the purse-strings and needs to know what gaps need shoring up.
Kohala Councilman Tim Richards, for example, is stressing food security for the island. With more than 80% of schoolchildren on free or reduced cost school meals, how do they eat when school’s not in session?
“We don’t know what we don’t know yet,” Richards said. “Everybody just needs to park the politics.”
“We just put all of our concerns on the table,” said Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy, “We’re giving the mayor and his team an opportunity to formulate responses.”
Council Chairman Aaron Chung did not attend sessions so as to allow the other eight council members to participate. Chung, waiting outside the building while the sessions were going on, asked a West Hawaii Today reporter not to attend.
“The purpose of this is not to create a veil of secrecy. But we have to be able to get in there and hash things out,” Chung said. “It’s all in the best interest of our county and state. … This is not like anything we have seen in our lifetime and it should supersede any Sunshine Law concerns.”
His concerns may have been alleviated by the notice later in the day that Gov. David Ige signed a supplemental emergency proclamation loosening Sunshine Law restrictions “to the extent necessary to enable boards to conduct business in person or through remote technology without holding meetings open to the public.”
“Boards shall consider reasonable measures to allow public participation consistent with social distancing practices, such as providing notice of meetings, allowing submission of written testimony on agendized items, live streaming meetings and posting minutes of meetings online,” the supplemental proclamation reads. “No board deliberation or action shall be invalid, however, if such measures are not taken.”