Phased reopening

  • Contributed

    Mayor Derek Kawakami

LIHU‘E — Kaua‘i residents are back on the beaches and some businesses are open as the island enters its fifth week of zero cases of COVID-19, and residents are reentering a different world.

It’s been about four weeks since the last active case was confirmed. Now, residents have nine different mayoral emergency rules, their amendments and their subsequent expirations ringing around in our heads, as well as Gov. David Ige’s emergency proclamations and their supplementary proclamations.

We’ve learned criteria for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s social-distancing requirements and learned proper mask-wearing procedures. We’ve gotten used to practicing them.

Errands like banking and grocery shopping are now different experiences than they once were. Those who have been allowed back to their jobs face changes in the workplace. Questions about the future loom.

Mayor Derek Kawakami dubbed this the “new temporary normal” on Friday, sitting in a little room off of the Kaua‘i Emergency Management Agency’s Emergency Operations Center with Chief of Staff Sarah Blane.

Having finished his near-daily video address to Kaua‘i citizens and a few meetings with his Kaua‘i Economic Recovery Team, Kawakami and Blane sat down with The Garden Island to talk about the next steps — Kaua‘i’s staged reopening, strategies for coping with the safer-at-home order, and strategies for strengthening Kaua‘i’s economy.

Latest emergency rules

While Ige has yet to reopen beaches throughout the state, the county received approval from Ige to reopen beaches on the island starting May 15, prompting mayors of other islands to consider doing the same.

The governor’s sixth supplementary proclamation took away mayors’ independent emergency powers in Hawai‘i. Kawakami had to submit his plan to reopen beaches and extend traveler quarantine through June 30 for Ige’s approval.

Now governor-approved, these two latest emergency rules do two things: continue to discourage traveler arrivals on Kaua‘i and allow residents to again use the beaches under a two-week pilot program.

“In order to move more freely in the community we need assurance we won’t have an influx of people coming in,” Blane said.

It’s a bit out of step with the statewide plan of staged, coordinated reopening but, as Blane put it: “Here on Kaua‘i we have unique needs, and we will do what he (Kawakami) feels best for Kaua‘i.”

Kawakami added: “People of Kaua‘i have earned and deserve the right to sit on the beach. Kaua‘i is generally safe right now, and our ability to quarantine arrivals goes hand-in-hand with how much we can open the local economy.”

Ige closed beaches statewide on April 17, and before that order Kawakami had restricted beach-park access, all steps to prevent the COVID19 pandemic from spreading through the state.

Blane explained the reason Kaua‘i took the first steps to restrict beach access was because the county was receiving daily photos from lifeguards of crowded beaches “as if there was no pandemic.”

“At the time they were closed it was necessary,” Blane said.

“The same with golf,” Kawakami added. Golf courses remained open at the beginning of the COVID19-triggered emergency rules, but were eventually ordered closed because too many people were hanging out in groups on the green.

“We had to take a pause, step away and reassess the situation,” Kawakami said. Golf courses are now open, with social distancing, hygiene and sanitization rules in place. “People are much more in tune today than they were three or four weeks ago.”

Restarting the economy

Inside the EOC, the Kaua‘i Economic Recovery Strategy Team has been working since mid-March on two goals: short-term relief and long-term recovery.

Groups representing eight sectors of the Kaua‘i economy are working on a plan to strengthen each of those sectors, “with tangible projects that can help support” each sector, Kawakami said. Each sector has a chief, responsible for coordinating recovery plans.

“We’ve empowered these chiefs of different branches to make these decisions because we have trust in their knowledge of their respective subject matter,” Kawakami said.

That list will be made public when finalized.

The team is also working on a “shop local” marketing program, Kawakami said, “so we can help the private sector with advertising and branding, and for people to use whatever resources they have to support our local economy.”

As they brainstorm future economic recovery, the team has also been working on multiple challenges for short-term, immediate relief.

“When we saw there were going to be a whole bunch of people not working, we said we needed to fill the gaps. But, nobody anticipated the biggest gap we were going to have to fill was the total crash of the unemployment system at the state level,” Kawakami said.

That’s when the county teamed up with other organizations, like the Kaua‘i Government Employees Federal Credit Union, to do bridge loans for people who couldn’t qualify for unemployment, like gig workers and independent contractors.

Looking forward, the county plans to reopen the rest of the economy based on risk assessment and in phases, in step with the state, allowing those businesses deemed the lowest risk for virus spread to open, with COVID-19 countermeasures in place.

Kawakami didn’t say when the next phase of reopening will occur, but said he and his team are working closely with the governor on next steps.

Mental health

Through all of the pandemic-prevention countermeasures the Mayor’s Office has enacted, Kawakami says he’s been concerned about the mental-health repurcussions of things like increased emotional and financial stress, confusion and fear, and the potential for an increase in substance abuse.

Especially with May being Mental Health Month, Kawakami said he’s “trying to get people to use this time to improve themselves.”

“Not just home improvement, but, how do you become a better, healthier person,” he said.

Practicing meditation and mindfulness are two suggestions Kawakami made, suggesting people use digital applications to learn to “detach yourself from stressful situations and put your mind in a better place so you can start to relax.”

Learning new skills, new languages or picking up new projects are other suggestions for keeping mentally healthy.

“Do everything we can to remain safe and take time to get to a frame of mind so we can get sleep,” Kawakami said. “We can choose to engage in good, healthy habits.”

Bracing for a second virus wave

Public-health officials around the world say pandemics happen in waves, and Kaua‘i, like many other places in the world, is bracing for that second virus wave. The steps they take will depend on what happens when COVID-19 resurfaces on Kaua‘i.

“Depends on what the wave looks like,” Kawakami said. “There’s a big difference between a Kalapaki knee-high second wave versus a Hanalei Bay, 20-foot wave coming in.”

The county is prepared for the eventuality that people will get sick again, but Kawakami said he sees an advantage in the second round of virus response. “The first phase of all those restrictions helped our health-care system gear up to handle the potential (of a second wave). To what capacity that is, I’ve gotta get more details from our health-care system.”

Kawakami added: “Don’t get complacent. Keep your guard up. We know what has to happen if things get to the worst-case scenario, and that’s everything we’ve done in the past. We’re trying to avoid that. It’s so disruptive to the economy.”

Your right to protest

Just a few hours before Kawakami and Blane sat down with The Garden Island, a group of people were demonstrating against the COVID-19 countermeasures taken by the government outside the Historic County Building, a recent Friday ritual for some Kaua‘i residents.

Kawakami said he acknowledges both the First Amendment right to peacefully protest and the potential for virus spread throughout the group, many of whom are not wearing masks and walking up and down Rice Street.

Ultimately, he said, the messages of dissatisfied residents don’t sway his course.

“We’re going to protect everybody, whether they’re grateful or ungrateful,” Kawakami said. “Last time I checked, if they’re residents of Kaua‘i, I’m their mayor and I will take care of them to my best ability, just like everybody else.”

He pointed out freedoms he built within the stay-at-home orders and curfews, like exceptions for travel to work and childcare, and said the last couple of months have not been a “lockdown.”

“It’s misleading in a sense, but they are exercising their constitutional rights,” he said. “Do they pose a risk? Yes. They pose a risk.”

A message to the Class of 2020

Kawakami wrapped up the interview with The Garden Island with a quick message to the graduating Class of 2020: “It may not make sense now, but one day this is going to be a fantastic story for them to tell,” he said. “This is the class where our whole way of doing things, our whole life as we knew it, changed.”

He sent out a reminder to the graduates that they are the authors of their own story and they’re just finishing one of the early chapters of that book. The direction that story takes is their decision.


Jessica Else, editor-in-chief, can be reached at 245-0457 or

  1. Ken from Kapaa May 17, 2020 4:07 am Reply

    After now months of living with the fallout of this pandemic and impact on all our lives we have seen very little about how we will manage the risk from reinfection from the other islands and beyond when we try to restart our economy. Let me offer some suggestions.

    First immediately begin screening all passengers arriving at LIH airport for fever, and again two days later at one of several facilities scattered around the island (perhaps drug stores who could earn a dollar for their trouble), to identify any infected who weren’t showing symptoms on arrival. This could be monitored by an online database to confirm all travelers comply or otherwise get a visit from KPD. If they show fever either time require a virus test, if confirmed infected then mandatory quarantine. Otherwise we could welcome them with aloha to enjoy their stay and fuel our economy. This would require we have no-touch thermometers like the airline use, and test kits – do we have them, if not is the mayor getting them?

    For those very few confirmed infected after leaving the airport the county would need to perform contact tracing to contain the extent of any spreading, this has worked very well around the world to manage the exposure. This approach would manage our risk within the limits of our local healthcare system to support. This requires the county to have a small team of qualified public health tracers – do we have them, if not is the mayor getting them?

    Lastly, if we are afraid of huge numbers of visitors descending on us, unlikely considering the drastically shrunken air service, and general reluctance to travel here or anywhere else now, we should upon arrival at the airport also confirm everyone is returning home (with ID) or to a properly authorized and permitted vacation property. The county already knows which addresses are within a VDA or that have special exemption permits, as well as if they are registered on the tax roles as such, and if they are licensed and paying TAT and GET taxes. For travelers confirmed to be staying at an illegal vacation rental we could send them home or require they obtain alternate accommodations to leave the airport. This could clean up the illegal vacation home problem, catch the tax cheats, control the total number of visitors, and fund the expenses from managing the virus risks, and restart the real economy of Kauai – all at the same time!

    One last thought to consider. We all live on an island where the 99% of our economy comes from export of pineapples, coffee, chemical testing by big industry, or tourism. If you are not part of pineapples, coffee, or GMO, your financial well-being most likely is ultimately dependent on tourism. Since the lockout of visitors we have been living metaphorically by stirring the remaining embers of the tourist bonfire fueled by the firewood they brought. Soon all we will have is the driftwood that washes up on our beaches. We need the visitors to return and bring their firewood to restore our bonfires or very soon it’s going to get very dim and very chilly here.

  2. Eku May 17, 2020 4:18 am Reply

    Good job Derek! Awesome Mayor; wish there were more courageous people like him running countries across the USA.

  3. nobody May 17, 2020 6:52 am Reply

    I hope the mayor’s legacy will not be the one who destroyed the economy of Kauai’s local people. I guess we’ll see how he handles it. I’m worried about the future of Kauai’s working class person. Locals are moving off island to seek better jobs, people with passive income are moving in to enjoy the environment. We want to “save the aina”, but for who?

  4. Brad White May 17, 2020 7:24 am Reply

    NO ACTIVE CASES for 5 WEEKS yet……stay at home, no group gatherings, wear your masks. Talk about NOT being in touch with reality and plain common sense….!!! One cannot pass on what one does not have.

  5. WaimeaResident May 17, 2020 7:34 am Reply

    Where is the increased medical care capacity?

  6. What? May 17, 2020 8:19 am Reply

    How is it that this guy can take away all our rights and then tell us we EARNED the right to go to the beach??????????? How did he become dictator in chief? What gives him the right to throw the US constitution out the window and punish every healthy citizen instead of protecting the high risk people. He doesn’t want testing or to listen to anything related to science. He doesn’t want testing because that ruin his I’m the dictator narrative and you must OBEY ridiculous rules. He wants to bankrupt everyone on the island that doesn’t work for state and county, but there next, they just think their immune. the only reason he hasn’t been sued yet is that he has closed down the court system.

  7. Tim Hoggard May 17, 2020 9:05 am Reply

    Here’s what I do NOT understand. If you fly into our island, you will be quarantined for 14…..that’s 14 days. We have had no cases for 5 weeks as stated above. Five weeks If my math is correct, is 35 days. So what’s the holdup? Open the island already. We have had (again) zero (0) cases in 5 weeks. We basically have 77,000 people on our island. My second grade math memory says 77,000X0=0. I fear something else is going on here. Make no mistake. Once we open up to tourists, they should be screened before even getting on a plane. Don’t bring your mess over here. So I am not advocating for a free for all. That wouldn’t be smart- obviously.

  8. South Dakota common sense May 17, 2020 9:07 am Reply

    With all do respect Mr Mayor, practicing meditation and mindfulness will not bring back those lost lives who so sadly committed suicide last week. The fallout from all of this is just beginning. As an elected official the fact that you will not listen to your constituents is not a good omen for the future of Kauai.

  9. Rick May 17, 2020 11:47 am Reply

    Kawakami said. “Last time I checked, if they’re residents of Kaua‘i, I’m their mayor and I will take care of them to my best ability, just like everybody else.

    King Kawakami, Perhaps there are people out there who don’t want you to take care of them. Perhaps there are people out there who believe our constitution gives us the right and responsibility to take care of ourselves? I know this is a hard concept for many to grasp. (Especially “leaders”).

    Now ask yourself, Why would Derek block tons of people and delete their comments on Instagram who are bringing information and questions to the table?

    Ps. I voted Derek in and want him to succeed. However his unwillingness to hear about the concerns of people who are not completely infatuated with him shows that he is a WEAK leader. Derek if you happen to read this, Man up and unblock all the people you banned on Instagram.

  10. Michelle May 17, 2020 2:51 pm Reply

    Keep us mainlanders away. The ones that insist on coming don’t love Hawaii
    All they care about is themselves

  11. Nike May 18, 2020 1:38 pm Reply

    Thank you IGE for having the courage keep all of Kauai safe. People don’t understand with such limited hospital facilities the danger isn’t just Covid-19 but to healthcare in general. We are such a small petri dish. My only disappointment has been Hawaii Pacific Health closing all but Lihue office. Doesn’t make sense to send people all to 1 location, more dangerous. Let the rest of the world be stupid and not respect mother nature.

  12. truth be known May 19, 2020 11:39 am Reply

    “Do they pose a risk? Yes. They pose a risk.” What he meant to say was “They pose a risk to me and my administration”. They represent the people whom he keeps blocking from his Instagram and Twitter feed because dissent is not tolerated. By the way Mayor, nice haircut and eyebrow trim. Please share the name of your hairdresser so we all can look as nice as you. Quarantine the visitors but quit punishing your constituents. What part of ZERO do you not understand?

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