What Just Happened? Reflecting on a Year of COVID-19 in Hawaiʻi: What Went Wrong, What Went Right
The world stopped working. Tourists, traffic, get-togethers? Gone. The bonds of society visibly frayed, with long lines for food, testing and toilet paper. Meanwhile, the unemployed remained unseen, at their computers or phones for days—if they had devices and wi-fi—vainly trying to log in for elusive benefits. Help arrived, but too late for too many. We’re still not out of the woods, either—and there’s no going back to the world before. What starts now is the great rebooting of Hawai‘i: figuring out what went wrong, what must change, and what path to choose. For a clear-eyed take on the road ahead …
… We asked seven experts from diverse backgrounds for an analysis of how we’ve done so far as a city, state and people—and where we need to go. To start with a little perspective, Hawai‘i in 2020 was coming off a banner fiscal year: 2019 was a peak year for tourism (10.4 million visitors) and tax revenues (general excise tax revenues up 4.1%, individual income tax revenues up 17.3%); Honolulu’s restaurant scene was thriving (this magazine cited 26 notable debuts). The state had a $750 million budget surplus and a rainy day fund. But perennial problems bobbed to the surface of public consciousness with increasing urgency: affordable housing, homelessness, education, climate change. And there was frustration with cumbersome regulations that nevertheless were selectively and inconsistently enforced by an ossified bureaucracy.
Still, the main worry seemed to be that there were too many tourists; as a consequence, natural resources were overrun and visibly degrading, along with the state’s reserves of aloha. The majority sentiment in a surprising poll was that the state was run for the benefit of tourists, not residents.
Today, a year later, all the good stuff is gone—surplus, tax base, restaurants, jobs, along with trust in many leaders and institutions—and only the absence of tourists provides a balm of serenity over an abyss of anxiety. There’s a general sense that Hawai‘i dropped the ball, frittered away advantages, failed to plan and to execute. It’s easy to criticize government and some will say there’s nothing new here. But faced with an event out of a sci-fi movie, the fairer (and more useful) question is, what could we have done differently? Better? More astutely, more compassionately, more effectively? Just as much to the point, what do the flaws in our response tell Hawai‘i about what we should be doing now?
For an expert evaluation, we polled seven experts with a reputation for candor; you can find their expanded remarks on our website. They are:
Paul Brewbaker, principal, TZ Economics, former chief economist at Bank of Hawai‘i.
Colin Moore, director, University of Hawai‘i Public Policy Center.
Kymberly Marcos Pine, who represented the West Side for 16 years in the state House and City Council before running for Honolulu mayor in 2020.
Hilton Raethel, president and CEO of the Healthcare Association of Hawai‘i, a trade association that represents 170 hospitals, long-term care and assisted living facilities and other health care providers and industries.
Christine Sakuda, executive director of Transform Hawai‘i Government, a nonprofit that since 2011 has advocated improving government through technology.
Cynthia Thielen, a former state representative for Kailua and Kāne‘ohe who retired in 2020 after 30 years of service.
Keith Vieira, principal at KV & Associates Hospitality Consulting and former senior vice president of Starwood Hotels & Resorts.
We know big bad things happen from time to time,” says economist Paul Brewbaker. “9/11, SARS, SARS-CoV-2 happened. For example, you know there’s going to be a hurricane event, wherever you are at this latitude. You just don’t know when and how bad it will be. Most people go through their lives not expecting something like this to happen but are at least cognizant of the risk.”
But when COVID-19 loomed, the state blinked. “Hawai‘i has such a large exposure to this kind of biological risk,” says Brewbaker. “Tourism is the driver of all the things people stopped doing—performance, entertainment, arts, recreation, accommodations and food services. We didn’t appreciate what could happen.”
It wasn’t as if news about a novel coronavirus in Wuhan wasn’t public knowledge. (I flew to Sacramento in late January and noticed a sudden uptick in mask-wearing passengers on my return flight three days later.) But as we all know, reporting delays and denial from China, the World Health Organization and especially the Trump administration induced a fatal lethargy, not helped by Hawai‘i’s false sense of security in the middle of the ocean.
State epidemiologist Sarah Park had a catchy handle, The Germinator, and experience combating everything from SARS to dengue to rat lungworm. The head of the state Department of Health, Bruce Anderson, had experience with disease tracking and transmission going back to his Yale graduate school days working with the then-unknown Lyme disease. Starting in February, Park said in a June story in Politico, the state began testing airline passengers who’d come to Hawai‘i from China.
The Politico story’s title reflected the state’s pride: “How Hawai‘i Became a Rare COVID Success Story.” One reason for confidence was Park’s assertion that there was a team of 100 contact tracers on the job. The article’s main caveat focused on Gov.David Ige’s perceived lack of enthusiasm for science-based measures, especially his reluctance to mandate that exposed visitors be confined to local hotels; his reliance on the honor system and, quite literally, aloha, might not be enough, the article warned.
By July cases were spiraling into the triple digits and Politico’s follow-up on Aug. 11 was titled: “Paradise Lost: How Hawai‘i Went from COVID-19 Star to Cautionary Tale.” Following a report from whistleblower epidemiologist Jennifer Smith that there were nowhere near the stated number of contact tracers, an unannounced Aug. 8 visit by state Sen. Donna Mercado Kim and other legislators found just a handful on the job—and those few were overwhelmed by 200-calls-a-day caseloads.
We still don’t know why the state let this happen. A damning state audit of the DOH came out in late August 2020. Signed by state auditor Les Kondo, it concluded that “instead of cooperation and assistance, we encountered barriers, delays, and ultimately were denied access to those responsible for leading the department’s contact tracing.” The report concludes that the roadblock began with Ige, whose “Chief of Staff subsequently contacted us to repeat that the (Disease Investigation Branch) Chief was unavailable,” after two interviews had been abruptly canceled.
Failure and stonewalling at the top? “The lack of cooperation we received is, frankly, inexcusable,” the report continued. Anderson retired; Park went on leave in September and is no longer with the department.
Overall, says University of Hawai‘i professor Colin Moore, “I think that the state did reasonably well. There’s fair criticism of contact tracing early on, but I want to give credit to Gov. Ige, who’s not well liked these days, for really shutting down tourism—and to [then-Mayor] Kirk Caldwell and the City Council for holding the line because it took a lot of political courage. I think we forget that. We also have a lieutenant governor who was very valuable in communicating to the public, a trusted source who people trusted not because he was an elected official but because he was a physician. You can argue geography protected us, but policy did too.”
Health care advocate Hilton Raethel agrees, noting the state has the country’s lowest infection rate and second lowest death rate, following Vermont. The only way we could have stopped COVID from coming, Raethel says, “is by literally shutting down our borders early,” to visitors, military and returning residents.
Others beg to differ. “We didn’t use tech to trace and track,” Brewbaker says. “We didn’t use smartphones for contact tracing like they did in Taiwan, where you get notifications on your smartphone if you’re near someone who has been exposed.”
Then-Councilwoman Kymberly Marcos Pine did a live Facebook video with South Korean medical experts in April on how that country had successfully managed COVID-19. “We had the answers right away: testing, tracking, isolation,” she says now. “We could’ve duplicated what they were doing so we didn’t destroy our economy.”
On March 7, airlines including Hawaiian cut flights drastically; by then tourism had already fallen by 50%. Ige’s March 17 request that visitors pause their arrivals for 30 days made headlines and April would see only 4,000 visitors. Given the timeline, though, it’s uncertain how much of that falloff was due to a new mandatory quarantine and how much was the result of a simple lack of visitor demand.
The failure that resonates is testing. Instead of a sense of urgency, the idea seemed to be met with resistance. Scott Miscovich, a physician and head of Premier Medical Group of Hawai‘i, was one of those alarmed in January by reports from Wuhan and in February by the state’s laid-back approach. When he secured a supply of tests and put his 120-member staff to work on a free testing program on March 21, “the state greeted their efforts with a dismissive and high-handed attitude,” says Moore.
Miscovich persisted and gained an ally in Lt. Gov. Josh Green, who broke with the governor over the issue. With Green’s support, Miscovich’s effort would expand from drive-thru tests to a mobile testing van for rural and homeless testing and, eventually, Neighbor Island testing. Meanwhile, when the state’s pace of testing was slowed by the DOH—officials required a doctor’s order before a person could be tested—and insurance reimbursement issues emerged, concerns about the effort missing poor and minority populations led Caldwell to request help from then-U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams. Learning that Filipinos had a high mortality rate from COVID-19 and that 30% of the cases in Hawai‘i involved non-Hawaiian Pacific Islanders, who make up only 4% of the population, Adams responded, “That is astounding to me.” He arrived with 70,000 free tests. “We are focusing on the communities that are hardest hit.”
Honolulu would finally designate a quarantine hotel in September. A cellphone app, AlohaSafe Alert, wouldn’t debut until early this year. (The free app is produced by this magazine’s sister company, aio Digital, in conjunction with the Hawai‘i Executive Collaborative, chaired by aio CEO Duane Kurisu.)
Residents, visitors and the military share blame for infection spikes following Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Locals crowded into multigenerational homes by economic circumstances including high rent had no way to isolate, but many also packed churches and/or partied. With hotels shut and tourism at a standstill, illegal vacation rentals harbored those sneaking into the state. The military’s self-exemption from quarantine played a part, too, as troops rotated in and out and then mingled in the community, often maskless. And then there was the Trump effect: a noticeable contingent of defiant supporters of the then-president boldly going unmasked even as chief medical adviser to the president Dr. Anthony Fauci, Gov. Ige, Mayor Caldwell and health authorities begged them not to.
As Brewbaker says, “There’s a kind of cavalier behavior in the U.S. that is just widespread enough that we’re just going to have to deal with it.”
“When New Zealand and Canada shut down, they gave assistance to businesses and individuals immediately. In Hawai‘i, people were literally starving after one month.”
— Kymberly Pine
Testing, contract tracing and isolation, including using quarantine hotels, worked in Taiwan and South Korea, neither of whose economies have suffered as much as the U.S. “If we had done all that in the spring we wouldn’t have had to shut down,” says Brewbaker. Pine concurs: “That’s how they were able to keep the economy going.”
What also hurt were the confusing edicts from the state (16 as of January) and often overlapping ones from Honolulu city government. Hotel consultant Keith Vieira says that “most of my guys, the hotel owners, have a lot of faith in Hawai‘i as a destination. But in the last three months they’ve been shaken. They knew it would be difficult, but nobody saw the illogical Ige decision coming that you can’t land without a negative test. That just stopped the industry in its tracks, because the visitor has no control over that. You’re telling tourists that you can do all the right things but because your test comes back late you have to quarantine for 10 to 14 days? No, they aren’t coming.”
“I give the governor a courtesy D- for his ever-changing rules,” says longtime Windward legislator Cynthia Thielen, who retired in 2020. “That gained the attention of humorist Dave Barry in his annual summary of a year we’d all like to forget.”
Shutting down tourism to slow a pandemic is one thing. Denying money and food to those who keep the visitor industry running is another.
“You can’t shut down the economy and not help people financially,” says Pine, who represented the West Side for nearly two decades—a place where wages are lowest, jobs less secure and people scramble to pay for housing and food at the end of the month. “When New Zealand and Canada shut down, they gave assistance to businesses and individuals immediately. In Hawai‘i, people were literally starving after one month. From my side of the island, from a working-class perspective, the people in power making decisions are not seeing the whole picture.”
And failing the suddenly unemployed while awarding themselves a raise wasn’t a great look for the Hawai‘i Government Employees Association. While Ige and the Legislature claimed that the raise was baked in and that government employee pay cuts and furloughs would hurt the economy and worsen the lackluster response, wholesale job losses in the private sector exposed a callous class line and led to the worst unemployment in the nation.
“The state of Hawai‘i just works for the interests of a few large unions and everyone else can just wait in line. The system isn’t set up to help the small, freelance or contract workers,” UH’s Moore says. “The point of unemployment is to keep people financially stable when they’ve lost their job. If it can’t get you the money fast, then it’s failing. Now former state Sen. Laura Thielen (daughter of Cynthia) was trying to get the state to not worry about checking every box for these unemployment checks. You know where it’s going, you can get it back if you need to. The only question should have been how can you get money into people’s pockets as fast as possible. If there’s something illegal going on, then the state will get the money back. But that attitude was not one that the [Department of Labor and Industrial Relations] had.”
Pine adds that “even as an elected official I couldn’t get in touch with officials.” To get help for a constituent, she says, “we had to team up with a senator and a representative of the person who was unemployed and then all three of us would seek help from the unemployment office—for one person!” Once word got out, calls came from constituents of other districts. “All we thought was, if we can’t get money to these people they’re not going to be able to feed their children.”
We’ll never know if timely unemployment assistance and distribution of federal funds would have prevented the closure of businesses that, in turn, will affect the state’s recovery and contribute to long-term economic weakness. But as Moore notes, the damage will be both financial and psychological.
“The lack of flexibility in our bureaucracy, the inability to think creatively—you saw the trouble,” he says. “The general risk-aversion in city and state government showed in the sending out of those restaurant cards so late, the unemployment system fiasco, the aging infrastructure, the bureaucracy that was unable to move quickly when it had to. There’s going to be a lot of lingering bitterness from people who weren’t able to get their unemployment money in a reasonably short amount of time.”
Overwhelmed, the state’s digital and computer infrastructure collapsed early and hasn’t fully recovered, affecting both unemployment checks for those who lost jobs to the pandemic, and the processing of Paycheck Protection Program payments. It also led to a frustrating inability to spend federal aid set aside for the state. As of November, only 30% of $1.2 billion allocated in March had been disbursed. This caused individual hardship and devastated businesses, worsening an already historic recession.
“We have 40-year-old mainframe computers and 40-year-old financial systems,” says Christine Sakuda, executive director of Transform Hawai‘i Government, a nonprofit collective whose goal is to push digitization in the state. “Suddenly the government had an almost unattainable task of supplying services while everyone was on a phone and sheltering in place and trying to access telehealth, education, engage in the economy through the internet and engage with society through the internet, all while the state employees were working from home, too.”
In March, most employees had no way to connect to their office computer systems; it’s still a problem. The systems couldn’t talk to each other; each department had its own system, own IT. “Traditionally the departments are siloed and work independently of each other,” Sakuda says. Used to fiercely defending their turf, departments couldn’t collaborate and, in the case of the DOH and DLIR, even turned down state employee volunteers.
For decades the state largely ignored digitization—“it put its budget into direct services,” says Sakuda—but before the pandemic hit, Transform Hawai‘i Government was encouraging collaboration on a unified financial management system. “The pandemic has shown the weaknesses that are a result of a lack of a unified strategy. There’s no question the state government needs to take a more holistic approach to IT strategy than the fragmented strategy that it’s had so far.” But our digital infrastructure has to strengthen for that change to happen. Sakuda compares it to plumbing: The size of cable bandwidth determines how much activity lines can handle and thus residents can access. But distribution of broadband matters as much as size on Neighbor Islands, in rural areas, on the West and Windward sides of O‘ahu, and among those without smartphones or computers.
“People don’t understand digital inequity,” Sakuda says. “For somebody to engage in telehealth and distance education, you need an internet connection. Most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about that. Out of sight, out of mind, which is exactly what the pandemic showed.”
Absolutely, from a medical perspective, says Raethel. “We’ve taken decades of vaccine research and compressed it into 18 months. We were caught flat-footed with [personal protective equipment]. But our supply chain and capability are increasing.” So that when the next pandemic comes, “we can just implement the protocols essentially overnight.”
The economy is a different matter. “The last time things were this bad in Hawai‘i was after the postwar demobilization,” says economist Brewbaker, referring to the departure from the Islands of half a million soldiers after World War II. “There was a very deep recession in the late 1940s. Qualitatively, it’s much like the vibe you get when you look at forecasts” from state analysts today.
But, he adds, “the thing that’s so striking to me is the late 1940s was when a bunch of guys got together and started Aloha Airlines, when Mr. Sullivan met Mr. Lau and made Foodland market, when a bunch of World War II 442nd vets made the Democratic Party. The 1950s started the period of the longest economic expansion in Hawai‘i history.”
Hawai‘i’s myth of the postwar period is that everyone prospered by pulling together. Leaving aside the myth’s obvious exceptions and left-behinds, the important question is whether the state, the Legislature, the county mayors and the City and County of Honolulu will be able to work together in a similar way. Moore gives the Legislature high marks for initiative and mobilizing as a body; Vieira faults Derek Kawakami, mayor of Kaua‘i, for locking down the island without concern for the economic impact. Expect plenty of grandstanding leading up to the 2022 governor’s race; already, throughout 2020, there was a sense of leaders competing for face time with the media at the expense of cooperation. We have a new O‘ahu mayor who’s a political novice and a City Council with a number of new members, including one without any experience in government. How things will go is anybody’s guess. It doesn’t seem fair to judge this early, but as 2020 showed, getting things right early can make all the difference.
Hotel consultant Vieira says opportunities are being squandered right now that could reshape the Islands for the better. “The problem before 2020 wasn’t too many tourists, it was we were mishandling too many resources. When my wife and I go to California and hike the redwoods, we go to an online reservation system. It’s managed. How come we haven’t even started doing that in the last nine or 10 months? All those government employees sitting at home could be developing online reservation sites for hiking trails, Diamond Head Monument.” Another priority is shutting down illegal vacation rentals, because “we want people in resorts where they spend more money and locals still feel some sense of having their own space.” With an online system, which is now in development at Hanauma Bay, there could be locals-only days.
There’s definitely more than just discussion about managing our resources. Recent actions include new protections for the Ka Iwi Coast from off-roaders and prodding an extremely recalcitrant Department of Land and Natural Resources to enforce its own regulations against aquarium fishery poachers. Trailhead management is on many to-do lists—an argument for the kind of comprehensive digital approach Vieira and also Brewbaker rank as high, and achievable, priorities.
Hopes for a digital and computer transformation remain just that. The strictly aspirational Hawai‘i Information Technology Strategic Plan released in April 2019 called for committees, models, plotting legislative outreach and goals. The Office of Enterprise and Technology Services annual report to the Legislature on Jan. 7, 2021, reflected a harsh new jolt of reality. There’s a timeline of the abrupt move to a remote workforce, a few statistics about emails received and chat room usage, but no deliverables. The one concrete 12-month goal is to migrate from “on-premise mainframe computing” to what’s called Mainframe as a Service—a lease arrangement with an off-site big software entity, such as IBM. MFaaS, as it’s known, would represent an abandonment of our existing computer infrastructure. It would also yoke state services to an outside provider permanently, which may be a good thing given the state’s track record and the inevitability of costly systems upgrades. Although, “once you depend on third-party vendors you don’t build human capacity in-house,” says Sakuda. “So the government always seems to be at a disadvantage,” in negotiating contracts and renewals.
But all that’s in the future. Right now, the system is flashing red. DLIR Director Anne Perreira-Eustaquio says: “I can’t express how much more difficult this is. … We’re dealing with a mainframe that is extremely antiquated, that has been touched many times now in the last nine months, and it’s fragile,” she told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Jan. 15. “And we’re extremely concerned that this mainframe is going to crash. Now, if this mainframe crashes, nobody gets paid.”
Out in the far west of O‘ahu, Pine senses a new wariness. “I know a lot of people who are done with government. Everyone is growing their own food out here now, people are doubling up in houses, pushing into one house. They’re not complaining anymore, they’re just surviving.”
How is this a good thing? “So many feel this desperation and poverty, they’re saying, ‘I refuse to ever allow this to happen to my family again,’” adds Pine. “That’s how you get good change to happen. We’ve had to look deep within ourselves and see what we need to live the right way on this island.”