Hawaii National Guard Major General Kenneth Hara said he is concerned about the possibility of civil unrest if a plan is not finalized to move toward easing Hawaii’s ongoing lockdown.
At a meeting of the state House Special Committee on Covid-19 yesterday, the two-star general, the state’s government’s senior uniformed officer, said a framework for economic reopening has been developed, in conjunction with leaders in business, the healthcare industry, economists, and elected lawmakers.
However, Hara and others indicated that a disagreement, primarily with the state Department of Health, over what represents a manageable level of virus in the community, has held up implementation of the draft plan. Hara said he worries continued delay will eventually foment civil unrest.
“At some point we need to accept risk. We have to accept that people will get infected and we have to push it to the threshold of what our healthcare system can handle. If we let the economy go the way it’s going, I feel there will be significant civil unrest and, worst case, civil disturbance and rioting,” he warned.
The concept of “acceptable risk” is a common method of analysis for military leaders and is used to define conditions in which a particular hazard cannot be completely eliminated, but mitigated to an acceptable level.
While most members of the committee, comprised of high-ranking members of the House of Representatives, leaders in the healthcare industry, economists, and representatives of various local industries, are largely on board with the draft plan, several indicated the state Department of Health remains resistant.
State Health Director Bruce Anderson has previously questioned the need to expand COVID-19 testing capacity and more recently pushed back on calls to expand the number of workers employed doing contact tracing. Both tool have been described as critical by public health officials around the world.
House Speaker Scott Saiki described the dispute as an internal disagreement and called for Governor David Ige to resolve the impasse. A similar entreaty was made last week, but appeared to be unheeded by the second-term governor.
University of Hawaii economist Carl Bonham said, in addressing the recession, the state has never faced a more critical challenge. Some 220,000 unemployment claims have been filed with the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, indicating that nearly 1 in 3 Hawaii workers is now jobless.
Despite the urgency, Bonham also cautioned against rushing to reopen out of fear.
“We still have to get it right. We can’t just go fast. We still have to get it right, because closing down an economy once it has reopened will also cause civil unrest,” the economist urged.
He cited the example of San Francisco, which Bonham said underwent such oscillations during the Spanish Flu epidemic of the late 1917-1919.
House Majority Leader Della Au Belatti said a key early test of whether the state is ready to resume some economic activity will be if the public follows published social distancing guidelines as the reopening proceeds.