Two lessons we learned from the COVID-19 lockdowns

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Photo by Charley Myers

By Keli’i Akina

We are finally breathing a little more freely. 

As of Saturday, March 26, 2022, Hawaii’s mask mandate was officially lifted, two years after Gov. David Ige first declared a COVID-19 state of emergency. 

Masks are still required for TheBus and TheHandi-Van, airlines and other forms of public transportation, in accordance with a still-existing federal mandate. But for the most part, Hawaii’s mask mandates are over.

At the same time, we have a long way to go before we fully recover from Hawaii’s two years of coronavirus lockdowns, and the end of masking seems like a good time to consider a couple of the main lessons we learned and how we can benefit from them moving forward.

You can’t just flip a switch

The first lesson concerns how we view our economy. Throughout the coronavirus lockdowns, the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii warned that it is not possible to turn an economy on and off like a light switch

Keli’i Akina

That’s because Hawaii’s economy is really just the combined actions of everyone who lives here. Each of us has our own dreams and plans; our own families, businesses or communities that we engage with; and our own ways of making a living and seeking to prosper. We are independent, but also interdependent, bound together by the complex web of property rights and contractual commitments that the government is supposed to protect by providing a stable legal environment.

If one day the government steps in, for whatever reason, and forces us to stop interacting with each other, it is plain to see that our “economy” is going to be damaged. The longer people are ordered to stop interacting with each other — from working to produce goods and services, earn a living and serve each other — the greater the damage will be. For some people, their life plans will be ruined. For many others, their lives will never be the same. 

And so it was that many small businesses in Hawaii closed forever because of the lockdowns. Others are still suffering and almost 30,000 workers are still unemployed. There is no switch you can flip that will immediately restore, if ever, these people to their former standing.

That’s why throughout the coronavirus lockdowns, the institute urged the Legislature to cut spending, keep the budget under control and give local businesses the best chance possible to survive this enormous economic setback. 

The good news is that UHERO (the Economic Research Organization at the University of Hawaii) is projecting tourism to rebound to 90% of its pre-lockdown level by the end of this year. But that should not be a green light for the Legislature resume its usual practice of high taxation, debt and spending.

Instead, we need policies that will help reduce Hawaii’s high cost of living, increase entrepreneurial and labor opportunities, and enable Hawaii residents to thrive and prosper, rather than flee in search of greener pastures elsewhere.
 

We must restore Hawaii’s constitutional balance of powers

The other main lesson we learned during the past two year is that Hawaii’s emergency-management statute is seriously flawed and needs reform. The law seemed sufficient for hurricanes, tsunamis and other natural disasters, but its writers obviously did not account for the possibility of an ongoing health emergency. 

For example, the law says clearly that Hawaii’s states of emergency are to expire after 60 days. But because that law doesn’t mention what should happen if that 60-day limit is ignored, the governor has interpreted that to mean he can extend the COVID-19 emergency indefinitely, without any consequence. 

Just two days ago, the governor extended the emergency again, this time so Hawaii beneficiaries of a federal food-assistance program can continue to receive emergency allotments for another two months. 

A good cause? Sure. But just as the governor decided to extend the emergency to extend federal emergency food-assistance benefits, so can he reinstate the mask rule at any time. In fact, in a March 8 news release, the governor said that he would reinstate the mask policy if COVID-19 cases surge again.

In other words, there is no real limit on the governor’s emergency powers, and this is why we need to reform the state’s emergency-management statute.

To be clear, this is not about the mask mandates, second-guessing the executive or questioning the governor’s desire to save lives. It is about restoring Hawaii’s constitutional balance of powers and restoring the voice of the people.

As I write this, there are still two bills alive in the Legislature — HB1585 and SB3089 — that would help achieve this goal. Both would allow the Legislature to terminate an emergency by a two-thirds vote, as well as require that any emergency powers be consistent with the Hawaii Constitution and any suspension of laws be justified. 

You can make your voice heard on this issue by writing to your legislators through our website here. Hawaii’s lawmakers need to know that, even though our emergency restrictions appear to be waning, the people still feel strongly about not repeating our experience of the past two years. 

The masks may be gone, but the threat of endless emergencies will remain until we work together to fix the state’s emergency-management statute.
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Keli’i Akina is president and CEO of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii

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