Experts: Pandemic’s ‘unwinnable’ toll on Hawaii highlighted leadership stumbles

Experts: Pandemic’s ‘unwinnable’ toll on Hawaii’s people, economy highlighted leadership stumbles

HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - There’s no question that the events of the last 12 months were unprecedented, but experts say they also revealed some deep failures in Hawaii’s public leaders — from the state Health Department to the unemployment office to the governor himself.

One year ago, on March 23, 2020, Gov. David Ige announced his first stay-at-home order in a news conference. “I think the order is simple. You should stay at home. If you need to go to work, you should go to work,” he said. The next year proved to be anything but simple for the governor.

It was the beginning of multiple stay-at-home orders, travel restrictions and abandoned streets and beaches of Waikiki.

Political columnist Denby Fawcett said the pandemic shut down so many aspects of the state. “It was like a bomb fell on Hawaii and we’ve never seen anything like that before,” she said.

[This story is part of a week-long series from HNN, “The Pandemic: A Year with Coronavirus,” exploring where Hawaii is and where it’s headed a year after the pandemic started. Be sure to catch our special panel discussion on leadership in the islands during COVID-19. Click here for details.]

Despite the difficulties, Fawcett believes that this past year was a fundamental failure of leadership from the governor. “He created a power vacuum because he was not acting decisively and quickly,” she said.

“Now is the time for a general, a strong leader, a commander-in-chief.”

HNN political analyst Colin Moore agrees that the lack of leadership only led to confusion because of bungled messaging from the very top.

“This is a time when governors, leaders who have really strong communication skills, can really reassure the public, deliver a consistent message,” he said. “That’s never been a strong point for Gov. Ige, and I think that really showed during the pandemic.”

Fawcett says one of the biggest mistakes was the contact tracing debacle from last August. While Hawaii’s COVID numbers were rising, Hawaii News Now cameras accompanied frustrated state senators to the state Department of Health. They were seeking answers that they were not getting.

They found about a dozen contact tracers on hand, far below the hundreds that state Epidemiologist Sarah Park and Health Director Bruce Anderson claimed to have.

And the investigators who were there were overwhelmed. One man admitted he was trying to manage nearly 200 cases alone but was failing. “When the public found out they didn’t have it under control at all ... it looked terrible for the government,” Fawcett said.

Added Moore: “I don’t think Gov. Ige has been quick enough to ask some of his folks who were failing to resign immediately.”

In an interview earlier this month, HNN asked the governor about the DOH incident as well as the delay in seeking the resignations of Anderson and Park.

“We should have hired more people earlier on and that was something we weren’t prepared for,” he said.

“I think you can always make a decision or try to look back and ask the question if things should have happened sooner or not. But I do try to think that being able to get Libby Char in as director helped us to stabilize what was happening and really change the trajectory of what was occurring.”

The public health crisis was only part of the story. There was also an economic one unfolding.

An estimated 600,000 filed for unemployment in Hawaii after the stay-at-home orders were issued and tourism virtually shut down. The result was a near meltdown of Hawaii’s unemployment system.

“People seeking unemployment shouldn’t be begging for it. It’s their legal right,” Fawcett said. “They’re still getting about 40,000 calls per day and there’s no way they can manage that. But when people ask what should do, they say, ‘keep calling’. It’s insane.”

Moore said “This was the central failure of the state with the unemployment benefits.

“We had the highest unemployment rate in the entire country and this is one thing people expect from the state. For people who needed that money, there really can’t be an excuse. They should have pulled out all the stops and I’m not sure they really did.”

The governor says the blame for the unemployment problems was aging infrastructure, unable to handle the avalanche of claims.

“The system is 20 years past its usefulness and certainly that has been a challenge. But you know, I’m proud of the fact that we have, for weeks now, been able to deliver billions of dollars of benefits effectively to the unemployed and that has made a tremendous difference,” he said.

Former UH West Oahu History professor Dan Boylan believes Ige has done the best he can in a really difficult time. “This is an unwinnable situation for any politician,” he said.

“His dilemma is everyone’s dilemma and I think he’s handled it reasonably well.”

Most concede that our mostly low COVID numbers are because of Ige’s actions in prioritizing public health over the economy. “Hawaii leads the nation in the COVID-19 response,” Ige said.

“We’ve had the lowest infection rates by far. We’ve had the lowest level of fatalities by a lot. That’s partially due to our geographic isolation but partly because of the sense of community.”

Moore said that’s true and added, “But it’s also due to the fact that the governor made the difficult decision to effectively shut down tourism in this state that is highly dependent on tourism.

“That took guts.”

As far as success, when asked Ige says he’s most proud of his pre-travel testing program, which has allowed more than 1 million visitors and residents to fly into Hawaii since mid-October without seeing any major spike in cases.

“Clearly, we have a long way to go. There’s still many hotels who are dependent on travelers who are struggling, but we have certainly been able to bring people back to work,” he said.

“Especially with vaccinations moving forward, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

As a former history professor, Boylan considered what Ige’s legacy might be.

“Is history going to say he’s a great governor? Well, I think it’s a question of how we come out of this pandemic,” Boylan said.

When pressed to give the governor’s performance a grade, Boylan had this to say, “He’s had a ‘B’ governorship and lucky to have it in this incredible situation.”

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