Mayor Rick Blangiardi on COVID-19 restrictions, supporting Honolulu's hotel room tax
The first of the month was a busy day for Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi. The county moved forward with lifting some COVID-19 restrictions just as news broke of the first case of the Omicron variant in the U.S.
Oʻahu restaurants, bars and gyms no longer have social distancing requirements. Social gathering limits, previously 10 indoors and 25 outdoors, have also been lifted — and large events are allowed at full capacity.
The Honolulu City Council also approved a 3% tax on transient accommodations, allocating between one-third to one-half of revenues to the city’s rail transit project. Bill 40 now goes to Blangiardi for a signature.
Blangiardi spoke with The Conversation about COVID-19, water issues near Pearl Harbor, and the new hotel bed tax. In spite of the recent successes of his administration, the news of potentially contaminated water loomed large.
On reports of fuel-like odor coming from taps connected to the Navy water system. This interview occurred before the Hawaiʻi Department of Health's said preliminary tests of water samples from Red Hill Elementary detected "petroleum product"
RICK BLANGIARDI: It is chilling if you think in terms of the possibilities here. I think the biggest concern, obviously, is you know, this is very potentially noxious material and that it can really contaminate. And so obviously, it's a real public health concern. And we've been living with public health concerns through this dreaded disease since March of 2020. Yet here, we have something totally unrelated, but it is of considerable public health concern. And so are our interest in this matter is really heightened. And we're just hoping for the best. And again, I don't want to be premature. But you know, we all rely on water, drinking water, bathing water, cooking water. Well, I mean, water is our lives. And so we have a lot of concern.
On returning to normalcy with loosened COVID-19 restrictions as of Dec. 1, while keeping an eye on the Omicron variant
Dec. 1, the day we've lifted the restrictions, we want very much to go forward — and understand that all of us, myself included, have a bit of a mental adjustment to go through here in trying to regain some normalcy, if you will, to our lives, given the extended period of time that we've just gone through. So you know, with the holidays being here and trying to open up, we really don't want people to be living in fear. I do want people to be prudent. We still want people to be careful. I think our local people will be that way, as evidenced by the mask-wearing that we see. And also the percentage of vaccinations and the ongoing increase in vaccinations, especially among our most vulnerable.
On the thought process behind changing COVID-19 rules
Let me really clear about this, first of all, anything and everything that we did, in reducing restrictions or eliminating the restrictions was done in consultation with the top medical people in the state. This was not done in the vacuum of my office, or something capriciously, or done on a whim or whatever. I mean, it had to do with data, really hardcore scientific data and the opinions of really learned people in this field. So with that, we decided we would go forward, we felt comfortable enough, we were reassured enough, you know, looking at penetration of vaccinations, looking at where we were with respect to our whole experience with the disease itself since March of 2020. We're in a whole different place and actually, the safest place we had been since really before Delta happened. If there was one thing that we got from the Delta variant was we were at 60% in July, just hitting 60% of people vaccinated. Delta created a sense of urgency. We're now in a place where here on Oʻahu, our vaccination rates as far as percentage of our population are terrific.
On the new 3% transient accommodations tax and its allocations for the Honolulu rail project
We took a very favorable position after a lot of discourse, including even with the other mayors on the other islands to determine what their level of interest was, because it was an inevitability. So we knew, first and foremost that we had to restore, make sure we had an appropriate amount of money that would cover our city... about $45 million. Of course, that's not a static number, that number will be fluid as we go forward, then we looked at the rest of it as a revenue source. And the biggest other problem that we inherited, walking into office, and there were many, if you remember, in December, the prior administration not only blew up the P3, which was a method of financing and they fired their CEO and other related people — but they also announced at that time that rail would be finished in 2033, and it was a $3.6 billion shortfall just to add to, and this is after, you know, its inception since 2004, 17 years later. And we walk in, in the middle of the pandemic facing that.
What people sometimes forget is we're under contract with the federal government. A Full Funding Grant Agreement, the FFGA, with the Federal Transit Administration to build the rail all the way to Ala Moana and if we can't do that, then there's a fine to be paid or even possibly — when I say fine, I mean, they're currently holding $744 million. They could restrict those funds, they could actually ask for a recapture of breach of contract. So you can't be cavalier when you're under contract with the federal government for something like that, despite all the missteps that have passed, and nobody here is making any excuses. I'm the fourth mayor on this project, and this project will outlive my time in office, so there'll even be a fifth mayor. And so, at the end of the day, we looked at that and said, okay, that made a lot of good business sense. I have no idea or understanding why anybody would be opposed to that, we're maintaining our course to the operations. We're taking the excess amount of money. We're actually even taking .25% of that, along with other monies in the budget to reinvest back into our natural resources.
This interview aired on The Conversation on Dec. 2, 2021.