Hawaiʻi State Legislature Shuts Down Amid COVID-19 Outbreak

March 16, 2020, 3:05 PM HST (Updated March 16, 2020, 3:05 PM)
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Hawai‘i State Capitol.

The State Legislature is on a temporary, but indefinite, hiatus starting immediately.

House Speaker Scott K. Saiki and Senate President Ronald D. Kouchi announced Monday that the 2020 Legislative Session is suspended beginning Tuesday, March 17, as part of larger efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 and protect the public.

“We’re currently at a point in the legislative session where key legislation is being advanced and members of the public feel compelled to be here to testify on important issues,” said Speaker Saiki. “We want to protect those who would otherwise feel compelled to be here.”

The Hawaiʻi State Capitol is comprised of lawmakers and officials from across the administration, many of whom fly back and forth from neighbor islands frequently, interacting with constituents both at home and in Honolulu.

Considering the potential for legislative members to spread COVID-19, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations of social distancing and limiting large gatherings of people, Monday’s announcement was an inevitability.

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“On any given day, hundreds of people visit and work at the State Capitol,” said President Kouchi. “To combat the spread of COVID-19, it is important that we limit gatherings, especially those involving vulnerable populations.”

Big Island Rep. Nicole Lowen, who represents Kailua-Kona in Honolulu, said legislative deadlines are being suspended. Eventually, though, the Legislature will pick up where it left off — assuming it’s able.

It could be months before that happens, however, and Lowen said conducting the remainder of the session remotely isn’t a feasible solution.

“I don’t think that’s possible because we’re not set up to actually move bills out of committee or off of the floor (that way),” Lowen said. “As far as hearings, even if you could have just the reps show up and vote with no public there — that a little bit defeats the purpose. People would be upset to have so little transparency. Pressing the pause button at this time is the better choice.”

The COVID-19 pandemic may also have an impact on upcoming elections. Every representative in the Hawai‘i House is up for reelection, along with 13 State Senate seats that are up for grabs.

Quarantines and precautions will certainly impact campaign activities like sign-waving, door-knocking and public forums. But the Legislature may also run into dilemmas should the pandemic necessitate a legislative break extending beyond election season, with key committee members or even chairs potentially becoming unseated in the middle of a suspended session.

House and Senate leadership did not address those hypotheticals Monday.

“Both chambers have consulted with their colleagues and decided this is the right thing to do in light of the current circumstances,” President Kouchi said of suspending the session. “This decision was made out of an abundance of caution and we will resume the session at a future date.”

Legislative leaders will be in contact with each other and will reassess the situation daily, a Legislative press release said. Speaker Saiki and President Kouchi will declare through a signed memorandum the day and time to reconvene the session.

Max Dible
Max Dible is the News Director for both Big Island Now and Kauai Now. He also serves as News Director for Pacific Media Group's Hawai‘i Island family of radio stations. He formerly worked as a community reporter for West Hawai‘i Today in Kailua-Kona from 2016 to 2019. Before that, he was a sports editor, sports reporter, and radio talk show personality covering college athletics in Iowa. He's won several regional and national journalism awards, at both the collegiate and professional levels, for breaking news, long-form feature writing, and his work as a sports columnist.

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