Lawmakers want to prohibit businesses from turning people away if missile threat is real

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - News reports that several Hawaii businesses turned people seeking shelter away during the state's missile alert mistake sparked outrage.

Now, lawmakers are pushing legislation that would prohibit that from ever happening again.

On the day of the false alarm, Hawaii News Now received multiple calls from shoppers and residents who said the Walmart store on Keeaumoku Street turned them away after were warned to take shelter.

The company later apologized, but they weren't the only business that was reported to have responded in that fashion. Other businessplaces, like the Planet Fitness gym just across the street, allowed a flood of nearly 300 anxious and worried shoppers and beachgoers inside.

The incident has many asking: Should common sense prevail in similar situations, or are new laws required to address the chaos that can ensue if there is a real missile threat alert in the future?

Walmart's statement said, in part, that some associates may have misunderstood what they were supposed to do during the confusion, electing to evacuate customers rather than sheltering them in place.

"For this we apologize. As a result of this unusual occurrence, we will review our emergency response training with associates and reinforce proper procedures to help ensure all of our associates are prepared for any similar situations in the future," a corporate spokesperson said.

In his address to the state a little more than 48 hours after the false missile alert, Gov. David Ige mentioned the controversy – though he didn't believe at the time that legislation would be required.

"People generally understand that we're a community and they help each other, so I think part of what we and this effort will do is make clear to businesses what the appropriate best practices are," Ige said. "We're going to work with families so that they know that they shouldn't be going down manholes and what those processes are."

Ige said many people never really thought about what they would do if an attack was really happening.

"And that's what we're committed to improving," he said. "We know that public education is a big part of how we move forward."

Lawmakers, though, seem to disagree with the governor. Members of the state House of Representatives have introduced two pieces of legislation specifically designed to address this issue.

The first, House Bill 2673, prohibits places of public accommodation from denying shelter to any person when the state, or any portion thereof, is the subject of an emergency alert that advises the public to immediately seek shelter.

It would require businesses to provide a safe place for the public to shelter until a federal, state, or county emergency management official advises that the emergency condition no longer exists. It would also fine anyone that violates the law, though the amount has not yet been determined.

There would also be provisions for civil liability immunity, with certain exceptions.

"Businesses and other public accommodations that are open to the public ought to provide safe shelter to the best extent they can. And when they do, they'll be exempt from any kind of liability that occurs if anyone gets injured or hurt in the course of the emergency," said Rep. Gregg Takayama, chair of the House Committee on Public Safety.

The proposal would also empower the Hawaii Advisory Council on Emergency Management to investigate complaints and enforce penalties. All fees collected would go toward a major disaster fund.

Business advocates say retailers want to be good citizens and ensure the safety of their customers and employees, but a new law that forces retailers to open their doors during a time of crisis would be unnecessary.

"I think the rules and regulations we can work on our own. There's not a one answer to the solution. Every retailer is different -- the way they're built, the way they're run, and where they can have safe places," said Tina Yamaki, president of Retail Merchants of Hawaii.

A second measure, House Bill 2693, also requires businesses and homeowners to provide shelter upon missile threat alert and would provides immunity. However, lawmakers later removed the provision forcing homeowners to open up their homes as shelters.

The proposal would require the Hawaii Advisory Council on Emergency Management to develop a plan for emergency and disaster response.

The council would consist of seven members nominated with the advice and consent of the Senate, but appointed by the governor, who would also designate the chairperson.

The council would be responsible for coming up with proactive strategies and actions, to ensure rapid, timely and efficient response to an emergency in a way that would minimize damage and maximize recovery.

The plan would be due prior to the 2021 Legislative session, and an updated report and plan would be due to the governor and Legislature every five years.

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