It was interesting to watch the recent mash-up between the big dogs — Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, Kaua‘i state Senate President Ronald Kouchi, Mayor Derek Kawakami and Lt. Gov. Josh Green.
The Honolulu mayor suggested last week that Kaua‘i or “some neighbor island” might be the best place to test out the re-launch of the state’s tourism industry.
Kouchi threw the first punch, saying, “I want to be clear to Mayor Caldwell. Kaua‘i does not appreciate being identified as a potential test case to go bring in the tourists so you can make better decisions on O‘ahu,” Kouchi was quoted in The Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
Green, a likely opponent of Caldwell in the 2022 governor’s race, also was quick with a body slam, saying he was “shocked at the idea of using the neighbor islands as a giant experiment to see if the virus kills people. It was a pretty stunning comment,” he was quoted on Civil Beat.
Then on PBS Hawai‘i during a live “4 Island Mayor” interview program, Kawakami offered Caldwell a reasoned but sharp and direct rebuke, saying, “We gotta be careful with our words. There’s already a situation where there’s a level of fear…when our people hear that we are going to be like a sacrificial lamb or the testing grounds.”
Kawakami is correct, of course, that “We gotta be careful with our words.”
Caldwell has since acknowledged that saying Kaua‘i might be the best place to “test” the relaunch of the state’s tourism industry was a bad choice of words and a mischaracterization of his intent.
I’m thinking that a more appropriate phrasing might have been that Kaua‘i is in the best position to “lead.”
After all, it seems obvious that we are in fact in the best position to lead and are already doing so. Kawakami and the residents of Kaua‘i are at this moment leading the effort to eliminate the spread of the virus among our local population with zero new cases of COVID-19 infections occurring during the past 18 days.
Why wouldn’t we also lead the effort and set the example by slowly and thoughtfully reopening our local economy? Why wouldn’t we be the first to establish ultra-stringent testing and screening protocols at the airport and then very slowly reopen travel to and from our island?
Who else is going to lead? Governor David Ige? Caldwell? Are we to wait until O‘ahu gets it together before we venture out ourselves? If so, be prepared for a long, long wait, and no telling what we will get on the other side.
If we allow Kaua‘i to lead, think of the possibilities. Think of what we could do.
First, we make our island safe. This seems to be happening thanks to firm leadership and a population that cares about each other.
Next, we slowly reopen our local businesses.
Then with the help of the state and federal government (funding and expertise), we establish at our airport the very best testing and health-screening protocols available. We require health certificates from incoming passengers and continue the quarantine if needed.
Then and only then do we begin to slowly loosen the existing restrictions on incoming travel and closely monitor and track all incoming travelers (visitors and local residents). We adjust the plan moving forward, tightening or loosening the requirements as needed to maximize the health protections of our community while ever-so-slowly getting our economy back moving again.
But Kaua‘i being Kaua‘i, we will do much more than just open our doors while screening and testing for COVID-19. We will insist on the re-visioning and re-making of our visitor industry. There will be no going back to the same ole, same ole.
Via changes in state and county laws, rules, permitting requirements, tax incentives and disincentives, we can and must do things differently.
Hotels, resorts, airlines and vacation rentals must be required to:
• Pay every worker a living wage and health benefits;
• Purchase 90% of their restaurant items from local farms and ranches;
• Educate all guests on cultural and local norms.
We must also set strict limits on the number of visitor arrivals by:
• Freezing new resort development and reducing the number of vacation-rental permits;
• Directly connecting taxation of the visitor industry to the number of visitors served so that increasing numbers above a threshold results in decreased profitability.
To ease our traffic congestion, we must dramatically increase the taxation of rental cars, utilizing those funds for public transportation.
In order to have at least one day a week free from the noise and activity brought to our public spaces by the visitor industry, we might also consider banning all commercial activity on all public lands, beaches, waters and air space, possibly on Sundays.
And of course, in all beach parks, we must set aside sufficient free parking designated for local residents only.
With bold, creative and collaborative leadership, we could, in fact, accomplish all of the above and more. No, it’s not easy. Nobody said it would be easy. Leadership is not easy.
While Caldwell stumbled on his words, his instinct was on target — Kaua‘i should lead. And then, O‘ahu and the rest of the state could follow in our path.
Gary Hooser formerly served in the state Senate, where he was majority leader. He also served for eight years on the Kaua‘i County Council, and was the former director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control. The Wailua Homesteads resident serves presently in a volunteer capacity as board president of the Hawai‘i Alliance for Progressive Action (HAPA) and is executive director of the Pono Hawai‘i Initiative.