The Latest: HPD Defends Robotic Dog Purchase; Federal Help Available For Farmers; MVT Goes Virtual

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The Honolulu Police Department is defending its purchase of a semi-autonomous robot dog named SPOT using federal CARES Act funds.

HPD has spent close to $40 million in federal funds in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Much of that money was used for officer overtime pay and to purchase ATVs, trucks and personal protective equipment.

But $150,045 was also spent acquiring the SPOT from Boston Dynamics. The high tech robot wento to assist HPD's Provisional Outdoor Screening and Triage (POST) program for Oahu's homeless during the pandemic. 

Officers with the POST program told the City Council's Public Safety committee Wednesday that the robot has helped with, among other things, security, disinfection and temperature checks. Acting Lieutenant Joseph O'Neal says SPOT also limits face-to-face interaction with potential COVID-positive individuals.

"The human element always takes precedence where we worry about the safety of our offiers and their family exposure," O'Neal said.

"From a cost element standpoint, when someone gets exposed — which has happened numerous times now — they have to consult with [an] infectious disease expert and they're placed on home quarantine . . . Just two weeks ago, we had two civilians, they had to stay home, we had to replace them at the POST site."

O'Neal says replacing civilian staff members costs between $2,700 and $4,800 within the 10 to 14 day time frame. He noted replacing the staff with HPD officers would have cost the city much more.

"These weren't just arbitrary purchases, where it's a teenager with a credit card for the first time," said Major Mike Lambert, who heads HPD's homeless efforts. "They're all thoughtful purchases, we vetted it, we looked at it, were they necessary."

Officers argued SPOT and other vehicle purchases can be used by HPD long after the pandemic is over. O'Neal pointed out that since SPOT has machine learning capabilities, it can be used in other functions — such as search and rescue.

-- HPR's Casey Harlow

Federal relief available for farmers

Many small businesses in Hawaii could be eligible for forgivable loans under the latest federal COVID relief law. And that includes farmers.

Those who have shifted to agriculture from other jobs have found that the work goes well beyond physical labor.

Nearly ten years ago, Rob Barreca left a career as a web developer to take on the variety of jobs involved in being a farmer.

"You have to be a business person, especially in today's day and age," Barreca said. "You have to understand technology, you have to understand marketing, sales, distribution, delivery. You have to be a plumber, an electrician, a mechanic — I mean the list goes on and on of what all of these small agriculture businesses have to do."

Barreca says today's farmer has to be a jack-of-all-trades, because local food and agriculture are financially difficult.

"They're just low margin businesses."

Farmers affected by the pandemic and interested in pursuing federal financial relief can contact their financial institution or the Hawaii office of the Small Business Administration.

Where we stand

The state Department of Health reported 106 new cases and three new fatalities on Wednesday.

According to the state's numbers, Oʻahu had 73, Maui 11, Hawaiʻi Island 7, Kauaʻi 2, and Lanai and Molokaʻi had no new cases. 13 residents were diagnosed out of state.

The latest state count brings the Oʻahu total to 19,462, Hawaiʻi County 2,037, Maui 1,342, Kauaʻi 169, Lanai 106, and Molokaʻi 25. The number of out-of-state cases totals 592.

Since the pandemic began, the state has tallied 23,733 cases. The death toll stands at 312.

Manoa Valley Theatre goes virtual

The Manoa Valley Theater’s first production of 2021 is about three weeks away, and it will be entirely online.

It’s one of the many adjustments MVT is making to adapt to the realities of theater survival during a pandemic.

Executive Director Kip Wilborn says the theater’s fundraiser in November exceeded expectations, but it’s also challenging time to maintain connections between audiences and performers.

""Where things are is, we're decimated," Wilborn said.

"Most artists, because you work for yourself basically, and you contract engagement to engagement, whether you're someone who does bar gigs or whether you're doing major Broadway shows, other than with the union you don't have a 401K. Most artists literally go paycheck to paycheck."

Wilborn said he's thankful for government support, which has helped the theatre.

In the meantime, Manoa Valley Theatre is applying for another round of COVID relief from the fedreal government.

Next month's production is a play written about life during the pandemic. Waiting for the Host focuses on the trials and triumphs of online culture.

-- HPR's Noe Tanigawa