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Hawaii Updates: 2 New COVID-19 Deaths; UH To Produce Financial Crisis Plan By August

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Sandra Oshiro/HPR
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Updated: 7/17/20 at 6:10 p.m.

Where we stand

The Hawai’i Health Department today reported two new deaths, bringing the state total to 24. Twenty-three new cases of COVID-19 were also reported. Twenty were reported on Oahu, 2 on Hawaii Island and 1 was diagnosed out of state.

The latest death is an elderly Oahu woman with underlying medical conditions who died yesterday and whose passing was reported today. Earlier in the day, the department reported the death of an elderly man. He had a medical condition and was convalescing at home, said Health Director Bruce Anderson today.

An outbreak at Hawaii State Hospital is now up to 20 cases, including 10 construction workers and 10 staff employees, Anderson said. No patients have tested positive.

Hospital staff are wearing masks and given daily screenings. The health department is offering testing to any worker who thinks he or she was exposed. The positive cases at a construction site where an expansion of the hospital is underway primarily involves contractors and subcontractors, the department said.

The state case total now stands at 1,334. Oahu has 1,025 cases, Maui County has 135, Hawai’i County has 109, and Kauai County has 43. Three cases are pending determination of location. There are now 22 residents who were diagnosed out of state. Some 994 people have been released from isolation. 

University of Hawaii prepares plan for financial crisis

The University of Hawaii Board of Regents deferred a controversial resolution detailing how UH officials could deal with an approaching financial crisis brought on by COVID-19.

Regents Chair Ben Kubo’s proposal set off a storm in the UH community by suggesting President David Lassner could consider workforce reductions, furloughs, salary cuts and restructuring, among other moves, to reduce university expenses.

With state revenues falling and student enrollment dropping, the university will likely be forced to make dramatic budget cuts. Just how deep is still unclear.

Kubo said at a regents meeting yesterday that his resolution was aimed at drawing attention to the urgent need to address the university’s finances.

“The situation that has befallen us is very severe and it is of crisis proportions and that within the next 12 months or so, we will be making very difficult decisions, unpopular decisions, but necessary decisions to maintain the continued viability of our university,” Kubo said.

The regents voted to defer the resolution and redraft its language to address concerns raised by board members and dozens of commenters, many opposing the resolution. 

The regents received a commitment from Lasser that the university administration will produce a short-term financial plan by August laying out how the UH might operate in the coming school year. 

Kubo says the planning will include input from staff, faculty and students.

UH classses -- online, in-person and a blend of the two -- are scheduled to resume Aug. 24.

State selects airport thermal screening, facial recognition vendors

The state Department of Transportation announced the selection of NEC Corp., NEC Corp. of America, and their partner Infrared Cameras Inc. for thermal screening and facial recognition technology at five airports.

The $37.5 million contract will provide equipment to detect elevated body temperature of arriving passengers and facial imaging to help identify those with possible fevers. The contract also covers a 10-year maintenance plan.

"Taking these steps to implement the technology at our airports shows our commitment to providing preventative measures against COVID-19 for the community," Gov. David Ige said in a statement.

"We recognize that temperature screening won't catch every infected passenger, but it is an available tool that can be implemented and combined with additional measures the State is providing to help prevent the spread of this virus, while helping to rebuild the economy."

The thermal temperature screeners will be installed first at trans-Pacific arrival gates at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport, Lihue Airport, Kahului Airport, Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport, and Hilo International Airport. The screeners will then be set up at other gates in coming weeks.

By the end of the year, facial imaging equipment should be installed at the state airports.

State joblessness rate in June down from May but there are caveats

The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate last month fell to 13.9% compared to 23.5% in May, according to the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. But the department noted that COVID-19 conditions are impacting the accuracy of the data.

"COVID-19 related issues are affecting the counts and the official level of unemployment published for the State of Hawaii by the Bureau of Labor Statistics," the department said.

One major discrepancy is that people without a job who are not actively seeking work during a time when there are government-ordered business closures and social distancing rules are classified as not in the labor force.

The department said the Current Population Survey also misclassified those who are unemployed on temporary layoff as employed but not at work. That and the low response rate for the survey during the pandemic are also factors affecting the counts.

Deputy Director Anne Perreira-Eustaquio said her department is still receiving nearly 8,000 new unemployment insurance claims a week.

City sewer project completed as part of EPA consent decree

A major sewer project near Sand Island has been completed, taking the city a step closer to addressing long-standing environmental protection violations.

The City and County of Honolulu announced it had finished a key phase of its work on upgrading its sewage system required under a consent decree reached with the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies and groups in 2010.

Federal officials found violations at two wastewater treatment facilities and a sewage collection system on Waiakamilo Road. The EPA says millions of gallons of untreated sewage had discharged into the ocean.

The city agreed to spend roughly $5 billion dollars to upgrade the system -- and began work on the Waiakamilo Road project in 2018.

But Environmental Services Director Lori Kahikina says the project ran into challenges, including having to move a 42-inch water main line.

"Before we even got out of the gate, there was two protests. So when a bid came in, the contractors actually protested with our budget and fiscal services. That added six months to the project," she said. 

"We found contaminated soil, so we needed to work with Department of Health to do additional sampling and removal -- that added additional six months."

"We found undocumented fiber optic lines -- that added seven months. And an Army signal line -- we didn’t discover that until April. And then HECO overhead utility conflicts and noise variance would only allow us to work certain hours."

Under the EPA agreement, the city still has to finish upgrading several wastewater treatment facilities, including at Sand Island and Honouliuli.

Kahikina says those projects are underway and on time.

--HPR's Casey Harlow

Commercial rent survey highlights depth of business troubles

Hawaii businesses are asking for more rental assistance so that they can stay afloat in the economic freefall from COVID-19.

A public-private partnership worked on the Hawaii Commercial Rent Survey issued Wednesday that highlights the struggles with rent faced by small businesses.

Of the roughly 1,200 businesses surveyed, 62 percent said they have not received any rental assistance from their landlords. 

Companies behind the survey are asking officials to approve a relief program using CARES Act money. The program would focus on rent reductions and lease restructuring rather than rent deferrals.

Todd Apo with the Howard Hughes Corp. told a City Council committee that rent deferrals just burden businesses down the road.

“That relationship between tenant and landlord is what really needs to be worked on right now," Apo said. "As the survey showed, there’s been a lot of rent deferral because the landlords know they can’t necessarily force and collect the money but the landlords also have the responsibility to their lenders and investors that they just can’t say we’re giving up rent. 

He said the CARES Act money would get to tenants so they can pay rent. "It’s creating that reconnection between those two so that they don’t have to be afraid to talk to each other anymore,” he said.

Those behind the survey plan to back a resolution calling on the city for more rental help.

--HPR's Amy Nakamura

Returning residents again far outnumber arriving visitors
 A total of 825 residents traveled out of the islands and returned on Wednesday, outstripping the 498 visitors who arrived on the same day, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

The residents and tourists were among the 2,287 people who arrived in Hawaii on that day. Others among the arrivals were 271 crew members, 161 transiting travelers, 249 military, 102 people exempt from quarantine and 181 who say they are relocating to Hawaii.

This is a developing story. Please check back for upates. Editor's note: We’d like to hear how you’re coping with the latest COVID-19 developments and the state's phased reopening. You can call our talkback line at 808-792-8217. Or e-mail us at talkback@hawaiipublicradio.org.

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