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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.