Governor’s communications fumble leads to confusion over when retailers can reopen

Updated: May. 6, 2020 at 3:12 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - In a major communications fumble, the Governor’s Office on Tuesday night said retailers would not be allowed to reopen on Oahu and Maui this week as the governor had said earlier in the day.

Instead, retailers on Oahu are now not allowed to reopen until May 15. In Maui County, retailers and shopping malls are opening May 11. On Kauai and the Big Island, reopening will happen Thursday.

At a news conference Wednesday, Gov. David didn’t make clear if the order was changed based on concerns expressed by county mayors — or if he failed to clarify county-specific differences.

He did acknowledge the confusion, but also said, “I’m not exactly sure what I said that was in conflict.”

The mix-up left Hawaii businesses scrambling for confirmation on when they can actually reopen their doors.

The problems started with a mid-day news conference Tuesday in which Ige said shopping malls, retailers and a host of other businesses statewide would be allowed to reopen Thursday as part of a “phase 1” reboot of the economy.

The announcement blindsided Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, who said in a news conference later in the day that he had not been filled in on the timing of the plan and was worried that the rapid reopening would put people at risk.

Then, in a news release issued just before 8 p.m., the Governor’s Office amended the message, saying that retailers wouldn’t open on Oahu until May 15 — the date Caldwell had suggested — and had no set reopening date on Maui.

[Read more: Some businesses given green light to reopen to remain closed after all]

While there are lots of unanswered questions about late amendments, what is clear is that Hawaii is on a path toward reopening a large portion of its economy.

Ige said Tuesday that the state has successfully “flattened the curve” of coronavirus cases and could now focus on getting people back to work.

“We believe our community has the conditions to move into this next phase," he said, adding that “if you are going to patronize any of these businesses, we would encourage you to then return home because you are safer at home.”

Ige also didn’t elaborate on how the state would beef up testing and contact tracing as more people venture into the community. He did stress, however, that workers and customers need to follow social distancing guidelines — separating themselves by at least 6 feet — avoid gatherings, and wear cloth face masks.

And he added that he might need to reinstitute some orders if the number of COVID-19 cases begins to rise dramatically. “We do anticipate that there would be an increase in the number of cases and we definitely will be monitoring that,” Ige said. “We ask everyone to maintain their social distancing activities."

[To read the governor’s full supplemental emergency proclamation, click here.]

Businesses allowed to reopen under the governor’s new order include:

  • Shopping malls and retailers (except for Maui County)
  • Non-food agricultural companies, including florists
  • Auto dealerships and car washes
  • Astronomical observatories
  • Pet grooming services
  • Health care and social assistance, including elective surgery
  • Nonprofits that were previously not considered “essential”
  • Repair services, including surfboard repair

Meanwhile, a number of organizations must still remain fully or partially closed.

Those include bars, restaurant dine-in areas and shopping mall food courts, attractions and places of worship.

The state has been under a strict stay-at-home order since March 25, which shut down all but “essential” activities in the community. Under the order, hundreds of thousands of Hawaii workers have been laid off and thousands of businesses — from retailers to restaurants — have been forced to temporarily closed their doors.

On reopening shopping malls, Ige said he would rely on mall officials to ensure crowds don’t gather.

In a statement, Ala Moana Center — Hawaii’s largest shopping mall — said it was working to “safely reopen” but did not offer an exact date for when that would happen.

“The well-being of our guests, tenants and employees is is our highest priority,” the statement said.

Pearlridge Center issued a similar statement, saying it was “working on making necessary preparations to help support our merchants and ... (provide) the safest reopening experience.”

The governor issued the new order after several weeks of declining COVID-19 cases in Hawaii — the state has seen fewer than 10 cases a day for two weeks. On Tuesday, the state saw four new cases, bringing the state’s total to 625.

Ige has said he supports a “phased-in” approach to reopening the economy in hopes of preventing a second wave of illness. Under that plan, tourism isn’t expected to be given the OK to reopen for months.

And it’s still unclear when “high-risk” activities, like sporting events or concerts, could once again be allowed.

The governor’s approval to reopen more businesses comes amid growing concerns about Hawaii’s workers.

The state’s unemployment rate — at about 35% — is now the highest in the nation as tourism remains shut down and it’s now a common sight to see miles-long lines of cars at food distribution events.

White House economic adviser Keith Hassett highlighted the toll the pandemic has taken on Hawaii business in an press availability Monday, saying the economic problems faced in the islands are far worse than other states.

This story will be updated.

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