Date to Reopen Hawai‘i Economy a Distant, Moving Target
Lawmakers and various experts convened Monday morning as part of a meeting of the House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness. They discussed reopening Hawai‘i’s economy incrementally, as well as the development of an algorithm to decide the optimal timing of the move in the context of public health and statewide economic conditions.
At this stage, decision-makers aren’t trying to establish a date for Hawai‘i’s return to normal business operations. Instead, their goal is to develop a set of guidelines informed by data that will dictate when reopening should occur.
The guidelines will also determine to what extent reopening will take place, on what scale, and what restrictions might linger should the statewide shelter-in-place order be lifted. They would also include recommendations for conditions under which that order might need to be reinstated.
“The last thing we want to do is to lose the progress we’ve made in flattening the curve,” Carl Bonnham, Professor of Economics at UH-Mānoa and Director of the Economic Research Organization at the University of Hawai‘i (UHERO), told the committee Monday. “But at the same time, we don’t want to open it too late.”
The cost of waiting too long to kickstart the economy, Bonham continued, is job loss.
With the data he had Monday, Bonham projected between 60,000 and 70,000 jobs might return to the state within three months of unrestricted business trade. But those projections are irrelevant if Hawai‘i’s economic reopening isn’t timed correctly.
Speed and transparency will be paramount, Bonham said, in the decision made to once again declare Hawai‘i open for business and the methods used to arrive there.
“Trust in government will be crucial over the next month or two,” he continued, as the established guidelines will drive state investment in the Department of Health and other agencies.
One thing that’s certain, Bonham continued, is that all relevant agencies will need additional IT staff for data collection and processing to allow timely decision making.
Walk before you run
A host of upgrades to testing capacity and efficiency, as well as data provided by technology the state does not yet possess, will be necessary to create an algorithm. An algorithm must be developed before a date to reopen the economy can be set.
Tim Brown, East-West Center senior fellow at UH-Mānoa, said the state is a long way from obtaining either.
“(Hawai‘i) must have a solid testing and contact tracing system in place and the ability to ensure isolation of close contacts from the community,” Brown said. “If we open without this in place, we’re wearing blinders and entering a leaky boat.”
Contact tracing will provide a real-time picture of what the virus is doing. Currently, with a COVID-19 viral incubation period of up to two weeks and test turnaround times that stretch on for days instead of hours, the picture officials have is wildly out-of-date. New tracing apps being developed by companies like Google and Apple may help create a more accurate viral snapshot.
Rapid turnaround tests are needed, Brown said, and the state must be able to process tests on its own without shipping them to the mainland.
Beyond faster tests, Hawai‘i needs more tests. These are particularly necessary for testing of close contacts, as Department of Health Director Bruce Anderson said the average confirmed case will interact with 30 to 40 people before learning they’re positive for COVID-19.
Metrics — such as the average time from sample to collection, the average time for a diagnostic result to be returned, and the average number of close contacts per positive patient — will all be necessary to develop an accurate algorithm.
Transparency about cases — where clusters are forming and what type of gatherings are spawning them — need to be shared with the public in real-time, Brown said.
More personal protective equipment (PPE) must be procured. It won’t make sense to send people back out into the world until all frontline workers are protected and the public can begin wearing surgical masks rather than those made of fabric.
And finally, more investigators, caseworkers and data specialists will need to be hired across departments, as staffing needs will grow despite government coffers dwindling with the disappearance of the tax base and a heightened need for government assistance.
Major General Kenneth Hara, director of the Hawaiʻi Emergency Management Agency (HIEMA), said state employees currently furloughed will be utilized to fill these staffing roles. They will be sent to the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations to help manage unemployment benefits, HIEMA to handle emergency response, or to the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority (HTA) to help track new arrivals to the state.
Even after stay-at-home orders are lifted, social distancing will still be important and people will need to avoid crowds. A major publicity campaign will be required for this, Brown said, and is a superior tactic to “heavy-handed enforcement.” If it isn’t achieved, a return to lockdown will be more likely.
Businesses and public agencies will also need to extend work-at-home opportunities even after orders are lifted. Restaurants and bars will likely need to reorganize indoor and outdoor spaces to allow for social distancing for months, or even years, to come.
Why an effective lockdown has complicated an economic reopening
Brown said he believes quarantines and shelter-in-place orders have produced the desired effect in Hawai‘i, flattening the curve. The state has seen more modest daily increases of confirmed cases of coronavirus over the last week, with positive cases increasing by five, seven and 13 individuals on three of the previous four days. Numbers were holding firm between 20 and 30 cases most days for more than a two-week stretch prior to the shift.
Because isolation has been so effective, however, only a small fraction of Hawai‘i residents have been exposed to COVID-19, leaving most of the population entirely vulnerable to infection.
These factors, Brown said, will keep the islands a potential biological powder keg for months, or until a vaccine is developed. That, however, could take between one and two years.
A return to business as usual without the appropriate algorithm and data triggers for when a lockdown should be reinstated could leave Hawai‘i “in a New York situation in a month or two,” said Brown, adding that the coronavirus cluster consisting of at least 35 positive test results at Maui Memorial Medical Center is proof of this.
“We have a unique opportunity to make test, trace and isolate work (in Hawai‘i),” Brown said. “But we must move on timeframes of the virus and not the timeframes of bureaucracy.”
“Or the virus will get ahead of us and we won’t be able to catch up.”