PBN editor-in-chief lambasts lingering lockdown

The debate over how fast to reopen Hawaii’s economy is intensifying as the state and counties gradually lift their restrictions imposed in response to the coronavirus crisis. 

Kam Napier, editor-in-chief of Hawaii’s leading business publication, Pacific Business News, addressed the hidden costs of the lockdown and how to strike the right balance in easing the restrictions, during a webinar on Friday, June 5, 2020, sponsored by the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii

In his weekly column, “Pupu Platter,” Napier has encouraged his readers to think critically about how our state and counties have responded to the public health threat.

“Even the health care community is getting worried about the cost of the policy response to COVID-19,” he wrote in one of his most recent commentaries. “The irony is, it’s not only an economic policy failure, it’s a public health failure, too.”

Before joining Pacific Business News in 2014, Napier was with Honolulu Magazine for 19 years, the last eight as editor. During the hourlong webinar, Napier discussed lockdown issues with Keli‘i Akina, Ph.D., Grassroot Institute of Hawaii president, then fielded questions from the audience.

A complete transcript of the webinar is posted below.

Keli’i Akina: Aloha mai kakou, everyone, and welcome today. I’m Keli’i Akina, president and CEO of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, and we’re delighted that you’re joining us for our webinar. I’m excited because today is an auspicious day for many reasons. It’s June 5th, 2020. For one thing, it’s my first day back actually working from the office. It feels a little strange to be in a building that is half deserted, but glad that we’re in the midst of transition. I think all of us are experiencing that transition from a full lockdown to one that is less full, whatever that may mean.

It’s also an auspicious day because today, June 5th in history, is the 100th birthday of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, known to us affectionately as the Jones Act. We’re going to be celebrating that birthday with many reports that come out this month. I’ve written a chapter in a book by Cato Institute that will be released this month, and you can get a copy through the email. We’ll notify you if you sign up for our newsletters. In addition to that, the Grassroot Institute is going to present a long-awaited study on the actual economic costs of the Jones Act to Hawaii and the surrounding region, that will be coming out this summer.

Let’s go straight to what we’re going to talk about today. Our topic is striking a balance. Has Hawaii’s lockdown been worth the cost? I am just so delighted today to have a friend who is one of the clearest thinkers in the State of Hawaii and one of the best writers with us, Kam Napier. Kam has been writing — well, he’s been writing since the day he was born, I think. He’s excellent in putting ideas together and putting them down on paper.

In 2014, he began with Pacific Business News as editor in chief, which is the post he has today. But prior to that, I think many of you recall Kam was with Honolulu Magazine for 19 years. He was known for, among other things, starting the evaluation process of public and private schools, something which made him a bit notorious because people in our state don’t necessarily like evaluation.

One of the things I’ve really appreciated about Kam is that he’s been able to say what is rational and clear without becoming political. I don’t know how he’s navigated that, but I’m going to ask him about that as soon as we bring him on board. What we’ll do today is basically chat with Kam on the topic, and then what we’ll do is open to questions.

I hope that you will prepare and use the Q&A feature on your software to be able to participate in the questions and answers. Kam, thank you so much for being on our program today. We welcome you. Aloha. Glad to have you on board.

Kam Napier: Good morning. Thanks very much for having me on and having PBN represented. It’s a great way to wake up in the morning, a little live video webinar action.

Akina: Kam, one of the things I’ve admired about you is you’ve been a very bold writer. You say what you think, and that’s not always been appreciated in a town where, a lot of times, people like to have a group mindset. How have you managed to do that and yet remain nonpolitical?

Napier: I don’t know. I try to just think very carefully through what I’m saying. My goal is to try to reach people who may not agree with me, so they can at least see where another perspective might be coming from. With that goal in mind, maybe that’s where the discipline comes from, to try to write in such a way that people feel like it’s fair and coming from a good place. From reader feedback, I can tell you probably not everyone feels [laughs] it’s all been completely neutral. Neutrality is a funny concept, right? Everyone has perspective and bias.

Akina: When it comes to a controversial issue, such as the handling of the coronavirus pandemic worldwide and certainly here in Hawaii, there’s been a certain perspective you’ve had because you’re not government. You’re not an actual player in terms of determining what the government will do. You’re an observer. You’re the Fourth Estate. You’re journalism. What I’d really like to know is, what you think journalism brings to the table at a time like this.

Napier: Well, ideally it’s bringing good questions to the table. Questions that elicit facts, questions that elicit historical perspective and analysis, questions that help our readers understand what’s going on in the world. Pacific Business News is part of American City Business Journals. Our mission is to help people grow their business, advance their career and simplify their professional lives, and I think over the last two months, maybe that mission became help businesses survive, help people protect their careers and reinvent their professional lives.

The PBN newsroom has been working harder than I’ve ever seen them from home. We do two virtual staff meetings a day that look just like this webinar as the team works on their web stories every day, all day, and we still get the paper out every Friday without interruption. Just giving people news they can use. There’s been a lot of articles about PPP and how to get the most out of that, a lot of articles about what businesses have been experiencing, what they’ve been learning.

Some successes along the way — businesses that have managed to hold steady or grow despite everything going on. Part of that mix, but separate in a way, is my own column, so that’s where my disclaimer is. Any opinions expressed are mine. [This is not PBN’s] official stance on anything.

Akina: Obviously, Pacific Business News is dependent upon its subscribers and its advertisers, but you’ve taken in some leeway in your column, and maybe that’s one of the reasons your publication is popular, because you speak what you really believe and feel in your heart and a lot of people resonate with that. One of the things you’ve not held back on is being critical of government during times like this, during emergencies, and you have raised some criticisms of the government. What caused you to begin questioning the government’s response to the pandemic?

Napier: Well, when this thing first was in the news as an international event, it debuted very dramatically with news out of China, with news out of Italy, and I had simultaneous concerns: one, about the pandemic itself as a health threat, and the other, a concern that people would overreact, because I think if you were going to place a safe bet on human nature and behavior, you could safely bet that they’re likely to overreact to some new threat.

Maybe that’s not even necessarily a bad thing, because this looked like a very quick moving crisis and decisions needed to be made quickly. But then, where it becomes a problem is if people get locked into that crisis mode longer than is necessary. As far as the local government response, one of my first sources of concern was in March when we were already voluntarily social distancing and a lot of businesses were sending people home, even before the official “stay at home, work from home” orders, which were set to begin at the end of March. In the midst of telling us that it was essential that tourism stopped for a month, that most of our economic activity stop for a month, the plan at that point was still to let the schools reopen.

They were set to reopen after an extended spring break weeks before everything else was supposed to reopen, and I thought, well, if the logic of the shutdown is that we need to assume that any of us could have it and, in fact, anybody at any time, why is it OK for over a 100,000 school children who are notorious vectors for disease — every parent I know seems to be sick with a cold half the time — why is that safe from a public health standpoint, given the argument for shutting down everything else?

That was my first sign that there might be something to worry about in the local response.

Akina: There were several instances in which the government upped its game, so to speak. They began to take a more draconian approach toward dealing with the coronavirus. What were some of those milestones along the way that you commented on?

Napier: I had to do some homework last night to remind myself about these things because I don’t know about you, but the last two months, three months, feels like a year.

Akina: A blur.

Napier: Like it ought to be 2025 already, as much as gone by. Every day seems to bring some new stuff. Let me see if I can quickly find that. I did pull together a quick timeline here.It started with flattening the curve. … The big transitions in the narrative underpinning the lockdowns and their extensions was originally flattening the ICU curve.

Akina: By the way, let’s just pause for a moment here to explain that. You’re talking about a certain narrative that had to do with “flattening the curve.” What exactly does that mean?

Napier: The initial models from a variety of sources, which were predicting as many as 2.2 million deaths in the United States, suggested that the pandemic would spread at such a speed that the intensive care units would be overwhelmed. So what people meant by flatten the curve was flatten the demand curve of ICU beds, of ventilators, and spread that out. The initial explanation for a limited one-month shutdown was that nothing could be done to change the total number of people who would inevitably be sick. What we wanted to do was make sure that nobody’s cause of death was lack of an ICU bed, so let’s slow down the spread of transmission so that the inevitable illnesses don’t overwhelm the hospitals’ ability to handle them.

We were quite successful with that. I don’t think we even came close to stretching the potential of our awesome ICUs here in Hawaii. The measures we took flattened the curve quite successfully. As we were nearing the end of the April shutdown, under the flattened-ICU-curve logic, the language from Ige and Caldwell, and nationally as well, from governors and mayors across the country, shifted to slowing the transmission entirely or stopping the virus entirely, which was not originally presented to us as reasonable or realistic or even possible.

Akina: Kam, let me just pause with you here a moment.

Napier: Sure.

Akina: You’re saying that there was a shift in the fundamental narrative, in the premise that was being offered to the public as to why government was taking the actions it was taking. We moved from “flatten the curve” to now, “slow down the transmission” … 

Napier: Right, or even try to stop it.

Akina:  — or stop it. What is your concern about that shift taking place without it clearly being stated to the public, or without it actually being the original — without necessarily changing our original premises on this?

Napier: I think my concern is that this was done under the auspices of the emergency powers declarations, while it looked to me, and maybe to many others, that the initial urgency that justified the emergency powers was no longer justified. The emergency powers stayed in place, and the narrative was shifted within its context and there was no meaningful opportunity for public input, and there remains none. The emergency declarations continued to get updated. It’s a situation where we just have to trust while being asked to make fairly big sacrifices.

Akina: You mentioned that there was no meaningful opportunity for public input. A little bit of a segue here, taking you off topic a little bit into the subject of the governor’s suspension of the open-meetings laws and the Freedom of Information Act implementation here in the state of Hawaii. Do you think that was a wise move at the time? I know that you expressed concerns about that.

Napier: Right. Credit where it’s due. Civil Beat has covered this very well. They’re on top of a lot of the governmental accountability aspects of this situation. It was the League of Women Voters, I think, who wrote the letter of concern about the open meetings.

Akina: Actually, Kam, that was a Common Cause.

Napier: Sorry. Common Cause, you’re right. … That was 5 years ago in COVID time.

Akina: Right. Grassroot Institute was glad to participate in that as well.

Napier: Yes. People were on that, and I mentioned it in my column maybe a month ago because I wanted readers to know that it was a thing that was going on and who was helping to address it. It’s still a fact that with the executive branches of state and county governments using the authority of these emergency declarations, the only real checks on that, ultimately, could be the legislative branches of our three-way system, or the judicial branch. I’m not seeing locally a lot of interest on the part of the legislative bodies to rein in these powers, which may leave people with only the courts.

Akina: It’s very difficult, I understand, to question emergency powers through the court during an emergency.

Napier: Right.

Akina: Generally, historically, any review of the courts takes place years after an emergency happens. What recourse does that leave to citizens in Hawaii who are concerned about loss of civil liberties during a time like this, and perhaps the abuse of emergency or police power?

Napier: Whatever people’s concerns are, they need to reach out to our elected representatives directly. People have been doing that with protests in the streets, they’ve been doing it with emailing and calling their legislators. To be fair, if there are folks out there of the opinion that we need to stay locked down forever, by all means, call your representatives and tell them that, too. I’ve been encouraging folks all along who feel they have not been listened to that you got to try to speak out in the first place and represent their concerns.

Akina: Kam, I know you’ve not called for throwing caution to the wind in terms of the healthcare situation and protection of the public. But at the same time, you’ve had some very serious concerns about the economic impact and the long-term ramifications of the lockdown. Could you explain some of those?

Napier: Economic or other?

Akina: Both. Go ahead. Start with the economy.

Napier: I think, in a way, the economy and public health are one and the same. I think they’re inseparable. I think that the best way to take care of the greatest number of people is to be prosperous and secure and successful as a society. We’ve seen this has been quite an experiment. You push a button and stop almost all of the economy, and suddenly everyone’s broke, and the federal government has to reach into the national credit card and put $3 trillion on it in relief to the states and the cities to cover just March and April — as a reminder, the CARES Act and any other federal relief so far.

We’re in a period now where we’re making local decisions that are well past the safety net that was created to try to accommodate the specific public-health threat of COVID-19. It’s well known, when an economy is bad, when unemployment is high, when people are losing their businesses, those are public health threats as well. UPI, just this morning, in my inbox was a press release about depression and anxiety cases tripling nationwide over the last couple months.

Joe Kent with Grassroot has just had a piece at Civil Beat quantifying some of the other health risks. Everything from screenings that are missed. If someone’s been too afraid to see their doctor for the last two or three months, and they missed a screening that might detect a cancer, well, there’s a public health cost. Will that be measured at any point in some analysis after the fact of all of this? I don’t know.

Akina: How do you balance, on one hand, the concern for public safety and health, and on the other hand, concern over the economy? I know you said earlier that they’re not actually separate from each other, they go hand-in-hand. But we’re in a process of moving from a state of virtual lockdown into one in which we’re trying to restart the economy. How do we maintain and strike the appropriate balance for moving forward?

Napier: Yes. Well, people are going to argue about an appropriate balance, I think, for some time to come. There is some research from Duke University, surveys that they took nationwide through the month of May, and found that nearly a quarter of American adults were what they would call “openers” — that they were willing to accept up to a 16% increase in their own risk of contracting coronavirus for the sake of getting open, going back to work. But there was more than 30%, nearly 40% of respondents who were willing to take no risk whatsoever.

There are demographic differences between them. Now, the survey paid particular attention to political affiliation, so the “closers,” the risk-averse folks, had both Democrats and Republicans. The openers were more likely to be politically independent, and more likely to be self-employed. 

People are reacting to what is scaring them the most at the moment. In a large complex society, you are going to have people who are still most afraid of contracting or passing along the coronavirus, and you’re going to have many others who are most afraid that they’re losing their life’s work, that they’re losing their business. They’re losing the manner in which they sustain themselves, their families, their employees, their clients, that whole vast network that is what we mean when we say “the economy.”

Unlike me, policymakers are stuck with the horrible task of trying to satisfy mutually exclusive demands from different parts of the public. In my column today, I wrote about this survey. I just thought, at some point, it should be obvious that we’re as safe as we could possibly be in an uncertain world, and that the anxious people will have to learn to manage their anxiety on their own. And policymakers, maybe some of them are in that camp, they’ll have to learn to manage their own anxiety and stop making it policy.

Akina: With journalism and with social media, there’s been no lack of data points, so to speak, or raw data, if there is such a thing. You and I both know that data is only as good as the theory by which that data is interpreted. We’re looking at certain figures such as a very low incidence of COVID-19 in Hawaii, as well as an extremely low incidence of any deaths from that.

Now, how do we interpret that? Do we say, “That shows, aha, there was a tremendous overreaction on the part of the government and it was not necessary to go forward with the level of lockdown that we experienced or the loss of civil liberties.” [crosstalk] On the other hand, do we say, “No, that shows that we were successful with the lockdown?” As a journalist, how do you come up with the correct interpretation of the facts?

Napier: You just keep asking questions even if no one answers them, or even if they’re unanswerable. One of the things that I’ve pointed out in the column is that the economy was not shut down 100%, there were essential businesses that were allowed to operate with a great deal of social interaction. It seemed apparent from the lack of continued spread of coronavirus throughout the things that were open, that mask-wearing, hand washing, stay at home if you’re sick, stand a little bit further away from people — all of that seem to be sufficient to account for our success. Because if those things weren’t sufficient, the numbers would be higher, and they would be higher specifically in those areas that had not been closed. One of my frustrations, just as a citizen and a writer, is that I wasn’t seeing officials recognize that and change their mindset from, “We’re all going to die. Anyone could get it. Anyone could pass it along. Assume you have it.” We were told. “Assume you could infect everyone.” I think that that reality was showing us very quickly that that wasn’t the case, but the policies were not changing on that same timetable.

Akina: Let’s go to the audience questions and answers in just a moment, but I’ll let you answer one summary question. Was the level of lockdown that we’ve had in Hawaii worth it?

Napier: When I saw that in our emails about this webinar, I winced, because that’s an enormous question. People are going to be debating, “Was it worth it?”, I think for years to come locally, nationally, internationally. This is an international phenomena, that’s one of the amazing things about it. It may play out with the local variations everywhere, but there was essentially a global panic and a global pandemic simultaneously.

For me, personally, I was completely comfortable with what we were doing for April, that it looked worth the risk. It looked like there were some admittedly, very, very expensive policy interventions to try to help afford that response. But with each week past April, with each extension, for me, it’s harder to accept the “worth it.” I know that there are people who think, “Well, Napier just doesn’t care if people die.” That’s absolutely not true. People will die as a result of our intervention as well, and those deaths are just as real.

You think about: So the high-risk demographic is senior. I don’t know what our senior care facilities in Hawaii have been doing, but they’ve been doing fantastic, because elsewhere around the world, fatalities have been concentrated in senior care facilities. They represent 42% of the American fatalities, people living in senior care facilities, but they’re less than 1% of the population.

They say, “Well, they died of coronavirus sooner than they would have otherwise, had they not caught it.” But how many have been dying sooner than they otherwise would have because they’re lonely, and no one can visit them? Who’s measuring that? Is anyone? Is this in the calculus of, “Was it worth it for anyone?” I don’t know.

Akina: Well, this is a good place to pause and go to questions, especially with that two-sides-of-the-coin and multi-sides-of-the-diamond. I think that we have a lot of people who are interested in asking you about things such as the 14-day quarantine at the airport, or whether the herd immunity thesis is valid. 

I’m going to hand it over to Joe Kent and say to the audience that we welcome your questions at this time, and we’re going to devote the next half hour to answering them. Kam, the only thing I’d like to request is that since we’ve got so many people putting forth some questions now-

Napier: Keep it brief.

Akina: Yes, and we will look forward to seeing you write a little bit about this perhaps in Pacific Business News. Joe Kent, our executive vice president, why don’t you take it away with the Q&A.

Joe Kent: Sure. We’ve got a lot of people asking about tourism: When will tourism open, and how do you think tourism should open? One person says he’s concerned that by welcoming visitors again, we open the islands up to more COVID-19 exposure. But other people are worried about the loss of business and everything. How do you see tourism reopening?

Napier: I wish I knew the answer to that. Everyone’s waiting for government to issue its permission. When Ige put out his — I’ll try to keep this brief — he recently did the eighth extension of his proclamation and issued a four-point plan for the reopening of Hawaii. 

Accommodations in that plan, technically, have the green light. They’re totally open. All they have to do is make some minor health accommodations. But we’ll arrest their customers if they stepped foot outdoors — so they’re not really open. As long as the 14-day quarantine is in place, the visitor industry is not open. I totally understand. We feel like we dodged a bullet, maybe in part by shutting the borders, so to speak, and keeping outsiders out. 

I would just encourage people to look at the fact that case counts have been declining everywhere. Even the most pessimistic models are predicting very low fatalities nationwide by the end of summer. If we maintain the quarantine as long as September, which is one of the hints I’ve seen from a DBEDT report, we could be keeping out something that’s over it.

Kent: A related question someone asked: Even if tourism opens, and lets say, all the quarantines open and everything, how long do you think it would still take for our tourism to recover to what it was before?

Napier: UHERO’s estimate is up to six years, and that’s based in part on things like how quickly the larger national and international economies rebound. There’s a lot of things that are out of our control. Hawaii could have theoretically stayed open for business in every way imaginable, and tourism was going to collapse because people were afraid to get on a plane. They’re afraid to leave their homes, and we have no control over that. The recovery, to some extent, is out of our hands in that regard. Do people feel like they’ve got the money, the security and the safety to travel?

Kent: Another question: Ken Schoolland points out — we had a transparency discussion earlier on this — and he points out that China was very criticized for a lack of transparency during this process, yet Hawaii’s government waived the transparency rules and everything. Any comment there?

Napier: Well, I do think that the way this whole thing started with China’s intense reaction to a public-health threat subconsciously somehow set a precedent in the minds of policymakers around the world that this pandemic was so dangerous, only an authoritarian response would be sufficient. I don’t think that was even a conscious thing. I think it set a template. 

I think the way media was covering it internationally reinforced the idea of “weld the door shut on the apartment building.” That was one of the things they were doing in China. Now, we didn’t go that far, but we’ve been under a kind of gentle house arrest. 

That was one of my initial concerns, that there wasn’t enough thinking of like, “Okay, we can see how China and Italy are responding. Now, what are the ways in which we are not like China or Italy?”

Kent: That’s interesting. Another one Ken Schoolland asked is: He thought the emergency powers lasted only for 60 days without legislative action. Is that true? Aren’t we past the 60 days?

Napier: Yes, I had a great conversation with ACLU Hawaii about this because, honestly, I was looking into the laws about recall elections. Protests were going on, people were expressing that they weren’t being heard and policies were not matching reality or their preferences. And I was, “Well, what can people do? What meaningful action could people take?” In the course of that, I ran across the Hawaii Revised Statutes about the proclamations, emergency power proclamations.

The law literally states that they expire automatically 60 days after they’re issued, so issued March 4, expired May 3rd. But clearly, no one issuing them thinks that there’s a limitation, and no one in a position to say, “Hey, they expired,” is saying so. 

I had an off-the-record conversation with a senator who said that the Legislature is unlikely to do so because the existence of emergency proclamations is helpful in getting federal aid. Which is why the proclamation, say for the flooding on Kauaʻi, has been extended for now nearly two years. 

But those are not proclamations that required anybody to stop making a living. So no one cares, really, if the emergency proclamations for the flooding or for the volcanic eruptions on Big Island, if those get extended over and over. There’s no impact. 

But this time there’s an impact. It might be worth the challenge by the Legislature or by the judicial branch to say, if not now, in legislation in the next session: “Do we really want the extensions to just be automatic?”

Kent: Someone else, a different topic, someone else asks: Can Hawaii recover if we don’t start letting visitors in back soon? I would just add, what do you think about diversification? A lot of people are saying, “Well, let’s just diversify to replace that industry.”

Napier: One of the things that really caught my eye with that eighth extension and the four-phase plan, was that an unnamed industry was described as the highest risk industry. It was necessary under the latest version of the plan to diversify the economy as a precondition to opening this unnamed highest-risk industry. The same plan manages to not mention by name Hawaii’s number one employer, tourism.

Now, people have been talking about diversifying our economy my entire life without success. How realistic is it for a government, in particular, to say, “Well, we’re going to replace this economy with another.” 

An economy as a result of 1.4 million separate individuals in Hawaii interacting with each other, exchanging money with each other and with the outside world. With their own interest, their own desires at play, their own possibilities, their own training.

To say we need to wait for government to figure out a diversified replacement for tourism before we can reopen tourism, they can’t do that. They don’t even have the capability of doing that because we’re the ones who make an economy.

Kent: Another question: What do you think the effect of this will be on real estate prices in the long-term?

Napier: Janis Magin, our senior editor, has been talking to commercial real-estate brokers and the residential real-estate side, so there’s two worlds. The commercial real-estate side may see some really big changes. If “work from home” becomes something that people like and want to do, and they want to keep on doing, then a lot of office-oriented businesses may want a smaller, cheaper footprint. That could really change the market and free up a lot of space. You increase supply, demand drops, prices drop, et cetera.

Residential real estate so far seems unaffected. The volume of sales has been down because of “work from home, stay at home.” The realtors have been hustling to find ways to sell the homes online without having to meet each other in person. People have been very inventive with that sort of thing. 

I have on the back of my mind UHERO’s projection that if it takes up to six years, or somewhere between two and six years for Hawaii’s economy to recover, that we could lose 30,000 people in the next two years.

That could solve our housing shortage. That’s one way to do, is people just leave and put their homes on the market. I don’t know what effect that would have on home values if and when there’s a flood of homes for sale. 

The shortage was so bad before all of this, though, that the home prices may simply plateau. That’s been a historic pattern in residential real estate, is that home prices will spike, they’ll double as they did, like in between when I graduated from high school and when I graduated from college. Home prices doubled in the late 80s in Hawaii. Then they were flat for a decade. Then they doubled again and flat, so I don’t know.

Kent: We’ve got a lot of questions here. I apologize if I’m not getting to your question, but —

Napier: I’ll try to control myself and be brief. Sorry.

Kent: Excellent. Ige’s solution is to keep borrowing from the Feds to balance the budget and to increase the state’s debt: How will he deal with — now there’s a $2 billion budget shortfall. What’s the best way to deal with this, in your perspective?

Napier: I’m familiar with the hope that the Feds will bail out states and cities. I think the line of states and cities hoping for that money is pretty long. The national government already put $3 trillion on the credit card. What’s our national deficit up to now? Six trillion (dollars)? Nine trillion (dollars)? That’s not endlessly sustainable. 

It is out of Hawaii’s control, whether or not that Federal money will ever come. It would probably be better to look for solutions that are within our control. The faster recovery can happen, the faster tax revenues will go back up to normal. That’s one way they can solve the $2 billion hole.

Kent: Then also, if we have a population who’s fleeing the islands, that hurts that tax revenue, I guess, too.

Napier: You guys have chronicled pretty detailed how the cost of government locally in Hawaii has become much more expensive per taxpayer than even inflation accounts for.

Kent: I’ve got a lot of questions about: How do we reach out to the governor? Are there business groups that are doing this? What about the unions? Shouldn’t the hotel unions sue the government to open? Basically, there’s a lot of people who are frustrated and trying to figure out how to talk to the government to either open or make it a better reopening.

Napier: All the chambers are involved. They’re petitioning for clear communication and a plan. There’s the House select committee where business and the chambers are well represented. Business has been represented in the process for months now, and the process seems immune somehow to their input.

Janice Megan has a cover story in this week’s paper that’s just coming out today, about it’s been all these months and there’s no plan, and there’s no plan to communicate a plan. In a meeting last week of that House select committee, Peter Ho, with Bank of Hawaii, expressed the urgent need for this plan and a communication plan to tell 1.4 million people about it. The result of him bringing it up was the committee decided to talk about it at the next meeting, June 15th. So there’s a certain lack of urgency.

I don’t know what it will take for citizens in business to get the attention of people moving at that speed.

Kent: A few people have asked about banning vacation rentals: Why are we banning vacation rentals but allowing hotels to operate? It just seems like there’s a big crackdown right now still about banning vacation rentals.

Napier: I’m rusty on the policy details of that particular dispute now. All I know anymore is COVID stuff. [chuckles]

Napier: There’s definitely a crackdown. In the past, what the hotel industry has asked for, it said they’re interested in, is that their competitor be held to the same regulatory standards they’re held to. All right. I can see the logic of that. If there’s certain fire code things that our hotel has to meet and a home doesn’t, but the homemaker’s making resort money. All right. There’s a fairness argument there for that, but yes. Sorry. I’m rusty on that world.

Kent: That’s all right. “Please comment on the economic implications of the Department of Education’s announcement that virtual education will be offered to grades 6 through 12 next year. How will parents go back to work?” someone asks.

Napier: I’m not a parent. I know a lot of people are. It’s been quite a disruption for working parents to become home-schoolers, all of a sudden, to be at home. That’s a huge thing. I don’t know how you coordinate a simultaneous revolution in home-based education delivery without a simultaneous revolution, and when and where people work for a living.

Kent: We’re getting a lot of questions about the legality of this. “Is this legal, what they’re doing? How can a mayor or a governor’s proclamation negate the Bill of Rights and the Constitution?” Things like that: How do you view whether or not this is legal?

Napier: Well, it’s legal until somebody sues and a court says if it’s legal or not. I’ve heard rumblings of a lawsuit in the works. I don’t know that it’s been filed yet by one particular group. I can see potential legal arguments that, if you’ve lost business as a result of the policies, you could maybe make a claim for damages that began when the proclamation expired under the law, to say that from this point on, my losses were a taking that I was not compensated for. But I’m not an attorney, I’m not a constitutional law scholar. I just read a lot of stuff on the internet.

Kent: What has the cost of mental health been from this lockdown, do you think?

Napier: That’s a good question, and I’d like us to look into that more. One of the things I’d like PBM to look at as soon as we can, is the healthcare industry. One of the surprising and ironic outcomes of all of this, is we frighten people away from hospitals so successfully that the hospitals we were worried about overwhelming actually were financially dying for lack of business and revenue. The CARES Act included a $125 billion dollars in relief for hospitals nationwide, and that didn’t include only the cost of them caring for COVID patients, which in most cities were lower than expected. In some cities, much, much worse. It also covered lost revenue. I think it’ll take a long time to add up the bill on mental health and physical health costs coming out of all this.

Kent: Another question about just the testing: Has any study been done regarding the number of tests performed versus the number of positive results for COVID? It seems like the numbers in Hawaii are very, very, very low, and we’re testing a lot. To that, I’d also add, seems like Josh Green had a proposal to randomly test visitors coming in. I think it would be voluntary, every 20th visitor or something like that. How do you view the role of testing in this, and are we testing enough, or not enough or what?

Napier: That’s out of my expertise. What I can say is that I noticed as the narrative shifted week-by-week or month-by-month, that testing became the most recent obsession on the policymaker side. I don’t know, there’s a lot of things.

I wrote about for my column today the universal mask-wearing. Well, New England Journal of Medicine says outside of a clinical setting, it’s really more of an emotional support. It makes people feel safer. If you’re not within 6 feet of someone with active symptoms, according to the New England Journal of Medicine, the mask is there to cure your anxiety. Well, and anxiety is valid. There’s real economic outcomes of people feeling anxious and doing things so that they don’t behave fearfully. 

So if testing is, for some period of time, the thing that makes people feel better, whether or not it’s medically valid, I don’t know, I’m open to learning more about that.

Kent: A lot of people are asking about the arbitrary nature that government kind of picks winners and losers in this process. Stephen Bond says, “Is the designation of a central business really just the government picking winners or losers?” Someone else also says, “Some policymakers are wanting to allow visitors from Japan and New Zealand and Australia, but not from other places,” and so on. Just comment on the arbitrary nature of all this.

Napier: Well, I’ve been writing about it in my column. To me, it’s one of the things that undermines the idea that these policies are guided by science. When they’re telling us they can somehow divine the health-risk difference between grooming pets and grooming humans, between restaurants that also serve drinks and bars that also serve food, [that] they can tell which one is more dangerous than the other — I don’t know. Where’s the evidence for this? It almost seems like a retroactive justification of the initial response to then parcel out the openings as if the level of danger was still what it appeared to be in February or early March.

Kent: Robin Stueber asks: “Has the makeup of Hawaii’s workforce essentially shifted toward a heavy dominance in government and union employees because their jobs are protected? What does this mean for the future of Hawaii politics?” Actually I saw a graph that during the last recession, all the other industries in Hawaii lost jobs, whereas the government grew jobs. I’m curious if the same is going to happen in this one.

Napier: If the recovery is slow, if 30,000 people from the private sector, because that’s who’s going to leave, actually leave as UHERO projects, or more — my concern is 30,000 is a low estimate — then inevitably, fewer and fewer taxpayers are supporting the same or growing number of government workers, with their security and their pension. I pointed out early on that despite nice rhetoric about we’re all in this together, it was obvious from the beginning that they were two Hawaiis. There was the Hawaii that was going to be put out of work and the Hawaii that wasn’t.

Civil Beat to their credit chased for more than a month an answer from state government on how many employees of theirs were sitting home getting paid, but not even working. I don’t know that that question was ever answered. Maybe it has, to be fair, but that was something I was following at Civil Beat. You look at the response when Ige floated the mere idea of a 20% pay cut of state workers to afford the policy response to COVID-19, and the hit the private sector took, and then, in turn, the hit their wallet took. The response was immediately, “No, I don’t think so. Let’s talk about that. The incomes we have, they keep the economy going.” Well, didn’t ours? I don’t know.

Kent: Okay, a few other questions. I’m trying to group questions together. A lot of questions actually about tourism again, and just the aloha. It seems like everyone is very afraid of tourists, and they’re somewhat vilified. “How can we shift the culture to bring aloha back to island culture and towards visitors?” David Lum asks.

Napier: I don’t know. People got to help each other get over their anxieties, or have it be realistic. One of the things I’m chasing is information on these quarantine breakers that we’ve been arresting, naming, and shaming, which I wrote about, and I’m appalled by that. To me, that seems like borderline Fascist. 

You take these people who have essentially violated our kind of immigration law, and then our authorities send [information to] the media. I get these press releases with their name and their photo, where they’re from, and I’m expected to publish this? What? So people can harass them in the streets? My gut response to the first one of those press releases was, “I’m not helping you do this.”

Other people feel like these folks don’t care about our safety. They don’t care about our health. They deserve everything that’s coming to them. They say, “Well, I hope nothing violent …” It’s a continuum, folks. There’s no on-off button, once you start naming and shaming people and saying that their presence is a threat to us all. Their presence is a threat to us all, once you’re in that mindset.

Kent: Right. There’s no on-off button to aloha, either. It’s hard to build that trust. Someone else asked a related question: Doesn’t tracking, monitoring temperature scanning, wouldn’t that scare away tourists and delay the recovery?

Napier: Yes, I mean, of course, if you make things inconvenient compared to other locations, then it can make a difference on people’s travel plans. I don’t know what, at the moment off the top of my head, what other destinations are doing in comparison in terms of testing or self-quarantine, all of that. It depends too on how much the outside world feels like they believe those interventions are necessary and valid and fair and reliable. We were told that asymptomatic carriers were the big threat, but then we’re told that taking everyone’s temperature is the answer — but temperature is a symptom.

Kent: Okay, let’s do a speed round, Kam. I’ve got a lot of small questions, and try to answer in 30 seconds here. Okay, first: Can virtual tourism be successful?

Napier: I don’t know what that means. I think I know what you mean, but–

Kent: I’ve never heard of it either.

Napier: I don’t know how you get money off it. I’ve virtually toured all kinds of cities through Street View in Google. I didn’t pay anybody for that.

Kent: Do you anticipate legal issues from the Department of Education’s plan to rely on distance learning, given the fact that there’s a large number of families who say they don’t have the ability to access distance education?

Napier: Yes, there’s a social equity component there that could be a big challenge for the DOE, for state government.

Kent: “Why has there not been a demand for those who deny us to work to also not get a paycheck?” Let them feel our pain, I guess. Rick Thompson asked that.

Napier: All I can say is, I’m sympathetic to why people feel that way. I’ve written the same myself. I think maybe policy responses might have been a little different, if there was some law that said if your intervention causes 25% —what’s our highest been? A quarter-million people, at the highest, unemployed in Hawaii. You have to take a commensurate hit to government workforce. If that was like a requirement in law, the policy response might have been quite different.

Kent: How do we counteract the narrative that holds that we can only stop the virus with draconian measures? Is this narrative a threat to Hawaii’s people and culture?

Napier: The only solution is to look at reality. Look at what you see with your own eyes locally, nationally, internationally, about the numbers of infected, the numbers of active cases. Where are there places where healthcare is overwhelmed? Is that even a concern anymore? Where have the fatalities been, and what have the conditions been that make New York City, for example, turn out to have been a much more dangerous place to be than Hawaii or California?

Kent: There’s a lot of people who are just upset, just venting their frustrations. One person says a $7 billion economy was shut down for 17 deaths. There’s a lot of those types of questions. Someone else asks, “I wonder if the governor knows or cares how much the delays impact our tourism.” He works for a major airline, and they’re feeling concerned about opening up. A lot of people are citing the question about, or just citing the stat that there’s a 98% recovery rate and 17 deaths and all that. I guess what do you make of all that?

Napier: Well, that’s why I say one of my frustrations, as just a citizen and a writer along with so many of you all, is that the policy response is not modulated. It has not softened in response to reality. 

But now we’re near the end. There’s certain things that are opening up — tonight is restaurants. According to the announcements yesterday, the 19th is bars and a whole other range of business. 

One of the things that might happen is business always complains to me about local government:They tax us too much, they regulate us too much, they don’t want us to succeed. I say, well, what are you doing about that? Do you get involved? Do you talk to your elected officials? Do you run for office? No, no, I’m too busy. Well, for the last three months, they weren’t busy. And they were super motivated. 

So one thing that could happen is the business community gets back to work in June and then loses all the interest in the accountability that they wanted and deserved so badly for the last three months. The policymakers, elected or in the bureaucracy, then go on as if, oh, everyone was cool with all this.

Kent: I’ll just say, I didn’t get to all the questions here. I’m sorry about that. One person asks, “Are you running for office? We need your voice in state government.” [laughs] Anyways, I’ll go back to Keli’i.

Akina: Thank you very much. Everyone, give a virtual applause to Kam Napier and his presentation today. Thank you, Kam. We appreciate it greatly.

Napier: Thank you. Thank you everyone for joining us, and Grassroot Institute, thank you very much for doing this. I appreciate it.

Akina: Yes. At Grassroot Institute, we thank all of you for participating today. Great questions. If you didn’t get your questions answered, we’ll forward them to Kam, and he can decide to go ahead and respond to you. 

I hope you’ve got a copy of our latest report, “Road map to prosperity.” There are many voices out there that are saying the way to get back into a booming economy, is for the government to spend more money and to go into greater debt. We believe the exact opposite is true, and we have a formula for getting the economy back into a prosperous state, called “Road map to prosperity.”

Go to our website, grassrootinstitute.org, and you’ll get a free copy of that. Stay tuned. We’ll have many more webinars like this in the weeks to come. So glad you’re all with us today at the Grassroot Institute. Aloha, and have a great weekend.


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