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Hawaiʻi County mayor shares a snapshot of COVID-19 vaccinations, changes to social gathering rules

Hawaiʻi County Mayor Mitch Roth visits Queen’s North Hawai’i Community Hospital on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021.
Office of Hawaiʻi County Mayor Mitch Roth
Hawaiʻi County Mayor Mitch Roth visits Queen’s North Hawai’i Community Hospital on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021.

With Gov. David Ige handing over the reins to the counties for some COVID-19 procedures Wednesday, The Conversation spoke with Hawaiʻi County Mayor Mitch Roth about how the Big Island plans to move forward.

Mayors can now make changes to certain restrictions without getting approval from Ige’s office first.

Roth said he intends to increase the number of people allowed at large gatherings, and lift other restrictions. But he’s keeping a close eye on case counts and news of the Omicron variant.

"Especially now with this new variant out there, we want to be able to be nimble if we need to," he said. "We're still vulnerable on our island by the limited amount of health care opportunities that we have."

Per the governor, the Safe Travels program and the indoor mask mandate remain in place statewide.

The state reports 70% of Hawaiʻi County residents have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine. Vaccination rates are strong in Hilo and along the Kohala Coast, down into North Kona. But ZIP codes on the southern half of the island trail behind.

Read the mayor's full interview below, edited for clarity.


On why the vaccination rate varies in different areas of Hawaiʻi Island

MITCH ROTH: We've tried to have vaccination and testing in all the corners of the island, so I don't know if it's really access. Because, for example, in Puna, there has been vaccination clinics and testing clinics. And I think they have been available and they continue to be available. I think it's different thinking in some of those areas. I got my booster shot today. We went down, did not have an appointment, and I was able to walk right up to the desk and fill out our papers.

On his main concerns as Hawaiʻi County and the rest of the state relax COVID-19 restrictions

I think the biggest concern with this new variant is we don't know what we don't know. We know that, for example, that in South Africa, it's very transmissible, transmittable — but we don't know if it's more deadly than the other variants. We don't know if people are ending up in hospitals more than the other variants. There's still a lot of things we don't know. We don't know if the vaccinations are going to help or not help. We hope that they help. And from everything that we know, these vaccinations really weren't designed to prevent people from getting sick. They were designed to help people from getting really sick and dying. And we know the vaccinations have done that for, for example, Delta and the other variants. So right now, there's a lot of concern for what we don't know. But we're pretty hopeful, knowing what we do know, that the vaccinations will do their jobs even with this new variant.

On which COVID-19 rules could change on the Big Island

We're in the process of changing our rules. And rather than, you know, taking all the restrictions off, we're going to start by taking some of those restrictions off. We're going to start allowing larger size gatherings. But we're still going to have, you know, numbers of how many people can attend certain events. And then we'll allow larger events with certain permissions, and we've been doing that the entire time. There's a process that people have been going through with civil defense if they want to have more than the maximum number of people at a function. And what we've done with those is we've made sure that they had safety protocols. We're going to continue to have safety protocols for some of the larger events, but you know, the numbers that we're going to allow, will expand. There's things that we'll be taking out, some of the restrictions that we've had. But like I said, we're not going to get rid of all the restrictions, especially now with this new variant out there, we want to be able to be nimble if we need to.

On what metrics, if any, will affect COVID-19 rules in Hawaiʻi County

If we're talking about the pandemic and things that we're looking out for, milestones to open things up. I think the big things will be when we stop seeing people dying, when we have medications where we're really able to treat people, and we start seeing our numbers come down in our hospitals — not having to deal with people being sick. I think those are some of the things that we're looking at because, you know, we're still vulnerable on our island by the limited amount of health care opportunities that we have.

Lastly, the state Legislature passed a bill over the summer making counties responsible for collecting their own transient accommodations tax. When we spoke with you in August, you expressed concerns about the new system, where do you stand now?

I don't think I've changed my opinion. I think I actually feel a lot stronger about my reservations that I had earlier this year. I think Hawaiʻi County especially is going to have a difficult time without lack of funding. That's about $19.5 million and while we are able to tax our visitors another 3%, I don't think that we're going to make up that amount, the amount that they made that tax on was on 2019 figures. And 2019 was one of our best years, I think our best year, as far as the amount of visitors that we're having. When you raise a tax, you do a couple of things. One, you make it more difficult for people to come, including our local families. And so I still think it's going to make it difficult for local families to enjoy vacations. The other thing that I have to say about this is, unfortunately, we're going to need to raise that tax. And so we are looking at possibly even challenging, under the new Supreme Court decision, that tax. So we're taking everything into consideration.

Tune in Wednesday at 11 a.m. on HPR-1 for a COVID-19 snapshot of Kauaʻi County with Mayor Derek Kawakami. This interview aired on The Conversation on Nov. 30, 2021.

Savannah Harriman-Pote is the energy and climate change reporter. She is also the lead producer of HPR's This Is Our Hawaiʻi podcast.
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