Johnny Miro gets the lowdown on Hawaii’s lack of COVID-19 transparency

Radio host Johnny Miro of H Hawaii Media interviewed Grassroot Institute of Hawaii President Keli’i Akina on Sunday, Aug. 30, 2020 about Gov. David Ige’s lack of COVID-19 transparency.

Stations belonging to the H Hawaii Media network include KORL Oldies 101.1 FM, K-Rock 101.5 FM, Retro 97.1 FM, Nash Icon 107.5 FM and Shaka 96.7 FM.

Listen to the interview below. Or read the full transcript that follows.


Johnny Miro of H Hawaii Media interviews
Keli‘i Akina of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii

Johnny Miro: Good Sunday morning to you, I’m Johnny Miro. It’s once again time for public access programming here on our five H Hawaii Media family of radio stations in the city of Honolulu, 101.1 FM, 107.5 FM, 101.5 FM, 97.1 FM, and 96.7 FM.

As we continue to work our way through the effects of the coronavirus on our health, and of course, on our economy, transparency has been one of the things that people have been talking about lately, especially in articles, and several organizations have been very vocal about that. They feel there hasn’t been as much or any transparency whatsoever, as far as where we’re going with this. 

One of the organizations would be the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, a nonprofit policy research organization that seeks to educate people about the values of individual liberty, economic freedom and accountable government. Joining us this Sunday morning would be the president and CEO, Keli’i Akina, Ph.D. Good morning to you, Keli’i.

Keli’i Akina: Johnny, good morning to you and all your listeners. Delighted to be here today.

Miro: Transparency, that is a big topic these days. It seems like more and more people are saying there’s not enough of that, especially what’s been going on since March of this year, locally. I’m not sure nationally. I’m sure people are feeling the same way nationally about that in their various locales, but we just had a recent lockdown order once again, so to speak, lockdown for two weeks. Tell us about the new emergency order on Oahu.

Akina: Sure, Johnny. That’s the mayor’s emergency proclamation 2020-25 that went into effect on Thursday. I’d like to clarify at the outset that I’m commenting as a private citizen and president of Grassroot Institute, an independent think tank, but not in my role as a public official. I think some of your listeners may know that I’m an elected trustee-at-large in the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, and I’m running for re-election. I do want to make it clear with this disclaimer that I’m here as a private citizen today, and nothing that I say represents the government or the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

You were talking about the mayor’s emergency proclamation, and frankly, it’s a deja vu all over again. It’s another one of the coronavirus lockdowns, and we’ve gone through quite a bit as people of Hawaii. After a clampdown in March, and then a gradual reopening, we now, as of this week, have stricter lockdown measures imposed. The promise is possibly that this will last through mid-September or even later. I think that a lot of people are experiencing some mixed reactions about this.

Miro: You had Dr. Bruce Anderson and prior to that, Lt. Gov. Josh Green, both looking for four weeks. Where do you see this going two weeks or extending past beyond that?

Akina: The unfortunate thing is it’s not absolutely clear what the measure will be for government decision-making. How will they determine whether to go another two weeks or whether to go another month, and that needs to be made much more clear to the point.

Miro: Speaking of clarity, what are these new rules?

Akina: Mayor Caldwell released these new rules this week, which took effect on Thursday, basically, bringing Hawaii back to the lockdown state, which was what we went through in March. Frankly, it’s very difficult to understand. For many people in the public, there’s no dining in restaurants but you can take food out, no going to the gym, no haircuts, you’ve got to limit the number of people in stores; particularly, fabric stores can only have two people in them regardless of the size of the fabric store, and there are many other rules.

Basically, two things stood out to me when I read the rule: No. 1, stay at home, and No. 2, you can’t be transporting yourself anywhere by foot, by bicycle, or by car. Now, that sounds pretty extraordinary, but you would need to read on in the 16 pages of the rule to see that there are great many exceptions, and that’s part of the difficulty, finding out what is exempted from the rule and who is exempted from the rule. For the most part, the spirit of the document that was issued is to have people, as much as possible, stay at home and not go to work or go to public places unless it’s absolutely necessary for an essential function, for example, or transport themselves anywhere else. The goal, of course, is to have people self-impose some isolation.

Miro: With this kind of confusion with the mandates, the rules, what have you, you think people are losing trust in this government?

Akina: I’d like to talk a bit about that. I think you’re right, people are losing trust, but even before trust, there’s a lack of clarity. You see, the ability for a government to be transparent depends upon two things. One, being transparent that is open and being willing to let people see how decisions are made, but No. 2, being clear in terms of what’s going on. Let me give you an example of some of the frustration people are feeling.

This past Wednesday, just hours before the new rules, I wanted to figure out where I could go walking safely because with my gym shut down, I’ll have to curtail my exercise, and I’ll have to go on a walking regime. I tried to figure that out, but the rule had not yet been issued in terms of the printed form. I called the mayor’s office. They said to call the COVID hotline. I called the COVID hotline, and I said, “Can I see the rule?” This is less than 24 hours before it was to be implemented and after the news release, and the people at the COVID hotline told me they’re waiting for the rule, too.

Now, when I finally got a chance to read the rule, I found out that it’s a little bit complicated to know whether you can take a walk. Can you actually step foot onto a public park, put your foot on the grass? Can you walk on the sidewalk and so forth? Apparently, you have to stay out of the park completely but you may be OK walking on the sidewalk, and whether you wear a mask or not depends upon whether you’re staying 6 feet away from other people.

I was able to figure that out, but not everybody’s able to go through the 16 pages very easily. Part of the problem is there’s confusion over the rules, and that leads to the issue of trust. You asked me, “Do I think people are losing trust in government?” Absolutely. Let me make something clear here: I’m not criticizing the government for taking strong action. We don’t want to throw caution to the wind. We do want to overcome the health crisis that we’re in. We have to be careful, and we look to government for that leadership.

Government, however, is telling us what to do, what not to do, but isn’t telling us why a lot of times, and there’s a lot of confusion. To make it worse, in terms of trust, the governor waived Hawaii’s transparency laws several months ago, and we had some wonderful transparency laws and freedom of information act and open meetings laws. This is something virtually no other state has done, to waive this. He’s now refused to let media, like The Associated Press, see his COVID communication with various departments. Hawaii’s residents, I believe, deserve to know the basis for government decisions. They deserve greater transparency.

Miro: Yes, the AP actually reached out to all 50 states. What was the result of that? Forty nine were able to work with the AP, and Hawaii was the only state not to?

Akina: I don’t know if Hawaii is the only state, but I do know that Hawaii is amongst the very few states, at the very least, that refused to cooperate with The Associated Press. The AP was asking the governor for copies of his communication about the coronavirus with his staff and with the Department of Health. You’d imagine there’s nothing really highly confidential there. You have to raise the question, why on earth would the governor not want to release that?

The governor basically said that he didn’t have to provide that information because he suspended Hawaii’s open-records laws. Now, during an emergency crisis, it’s very difficult to challenge these kinds of actions by government, but very frequently, after the fact, courts rule that there had been some kind of violation. There are a lot of lawyers who are wondering whether we’ve got some violation of law taking place. Whether or not that’s the case, this is pretty suspicious.

During an emergency, you want to let people be as informed as possible. You want to earn their trust. You want them to know that decisions are being made on the basis of good research and good theory. You want them to be aware of the debate taking place. The last thing in the world you want to do, if you’re a transparent government, is to hide information from the people, especially when someone like The Associated Press and other media issue a Freedom of Information Act request. I do think that that does affect the trustworthiness of government in the eyes of people.

Miro: The sunshine laws are very helpful for folks in knowing how the government is functioning and if it’s functioning properly. What should the governor do in your opinion?

Akina: He should address this issue. During a crisis, the public needs more transparency, not less transparency. The public deserves to know why government officials are making the decisions that they’re making, why there are certain rules. Sometimes, the rules may have a good reason for being there, but they need to be explained more clearly. Also, Gov. Ige and Mayor Caldwell need to be more clear about what the public can and can’t do. Frequently, the news media try to digest this and put on little slides and inform the public, but sometimes, they’re off the mark a little bit.

There are people who are afraid, thinking that they’re going to have to carry around the 16-page rule and identify exactly what clause in that rule allows them to take a walk without a mask in a certain location in case they’re stopped by a police officer. I just read that in one of our newspapers, a citizen had stepped off the sidewalk to read the sign that had been posted at a park, and when she turned around, she was cited by a police officer. Her only intention was to read the sign that had been posted so she would be aware of what the updated law was. Situations like that aren’t good for the people. The government can do a much better job of explaining what’s going on.

Miro: One of your keynotes in your latest press release is that there’s a reason that predictability and certainty are cornerstones of good law-making. Can you expand on that?

Akina: Absolutely. People, for the most part, value the fact that we are a law-abiding, law-enforcing society. In order for that value to really have much meaning, and for people to be safe, we have to know how the laws are being interpreted and how they’re being applied, and a lot of the rule-making now is on the fly. You’ve got a press release, as we had earlier this week, with some confusing information and some contradictions. You didn’t have the actual law itself printed out for the media or for the public to read. And then, it gets issued. Now, you have individuals as well as police officers having to interpret it. That leads to a lot of confusion, and that erodes the cornerstone of law in our society.

Miro: How about one of the factors also being that unelected officials are also making a lot of decisions that adds to this confusion?

Akina: We live in a society of checks and balances, where we have elected officials holding others accountable. We have the legislative branch that holds the executive accountable, executive branch that is held accountable also by the judiciary, and so forth. This is designed to ensure that no one branch of government becomes all-powerful. But what happens in administrative law is that if one branch of government, particularly, the administrative, has the power to make rules, it delegates that down to various departments, and the departments are not necessarily staffed by elected officials. In fact, they’re appointees. People aren’t having their legislature make laws or their legislature even able to weigh in on some of these laws and rules. Instead, you have various departments.

Recently, we’ve had suggestions by the administration that the Department of Health should be able to make even broader rules and regulations in the name of efficacy and efficiency. That, in many ways, takes away the ability of the public to be sure that there’s checks and balances. There are some confusing aspects to the lockdown order that I didn’t mention earlier. For example, you can stand in the water to fish, but if you stand on the shore to fish, that’s illegal. You can imagine how that will confuse some people. You can exercise on the sidewalk but not in the park. I’m still trying to figure out, as I mentioned before, exactly what you can do on a sidewalk that’s next to a park.

Miro: Yes, you can actually walk through the park, and bring your board or your snorkel, what have you, and get into the water. Those are one of the provisions that are allowed during this lockdown order. I had to read down to, I think it was, page 6 of the 16 pages, if not further down.

Akina: That’s right. Now, we’ve been talking about individual citizens and our rights, but businesses, in particular, are also in a state of confusion over how to interpret, or some of the consequences that they’re going to experience. Especially, for example, those businesses that took advantage of the PPP loans made available through the federal government. Those loans were given on the condition that the businesses keep all their employees, but the new stay-at-home order is going to force many businesses to close. That means, they’ll have to lay off their employees. Some of those businesses are at risk of defaulting on their PPP loans because they can’t meet the criteria required for them to be in good standing on their loan. This puts these businesses and their assets at risk. Will their loans be forgiven? That’s not very clear at this point.

It’s apparent that many businesses; particularly, small businesses that are not backed by a mainland chain and so forth, are in a very difficult situation. Hundreds of them have closed down already. Many of them are saying now, that with two weeks of shuttered business, that they’re not going to be able to reopen or survive. It’s heartbreaking when you see on Wednesday of this week businesses just scrambling to get rid of their perishable items, in which they had invested quite a bit of money, and with no hope of being able to recover their losses.

Miro: We’re speaking with Keli’i Akina, the CEO and president of Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. They also just mentioned in an article at civilbeat.org that women have been much more impacted as far as employment concerns than the men are.

Akina: The effect upon business is uneven. There are some businesses that are able to continue weathering the storm because they service essential functions, and they have businesses that are doing construction work, serving some hotels and other structures that are taking the time to renovate. But there are other businesses that don’t have that business to fall back on; particularly, anything related to the tourist dollars, and they’re suffering tremendously. This raises a very big question as to whether or not our economy is going to be able to recover, as economists had predicted that, prior to this current shutdown, it would take as long as 2026 to experience a recovery. With the current shutdown, it may push us even further.

Miro: That seems like a generous estimate to you, as far as the recovery time to 2026? You think it’s going to go well beyond that?

Akina: We haven’t got the data in yet that tells us how badly businesses have been hurt. We see high unemployment, we see many small businesses shuttered completely, but we don’t know exactly what the financial impact on many is, what the debt load is. There are various pieces of the data picture that are coming out. For example, the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization said that we probably are going to lose another 30,000 people to the brain drain over the next two years because of the lack of opportunity in Hawaii, and that has a ripple effect.

It takes away people who are productive, who are moving to the mainland in order to do business, in order to make a living, and removes producers from our economy. It’s also been predicted that that will lower property values and possibly force the cities and counties to raise their property taxes. Just to say it succinctly, we really don’t yet know how bad the fallout will be to the economy that affects the businesses.

Miro: Of course, with that, the budget. Will they even bother to balance the budget anytime soon or attempt to, and how will they go about that?

Akina: That is a real problem. When we talk about the budget, I think you’re referring to the government budget —

Miro: Yes.

Akina: — the budget of the state, and perhaps, the City and County of Honolulu and the neighbor islands as well. Government is a huge sector of the economy. Let me just say this: Before the coronavirus crisis, we were already facing a budget crisis in the state government. That was augmented by the deep, deep level of unfunded liabilities that we have in our state.

Just for our public employees, in terms of their retirement, in terms of their health, we have a debt load of $26 billion that we owe them that we don’t have, whatsoever. If you add up other infrastructure costs and so forth, before the coronavirus crisis, state government was looking at $88 billion of unfunded liabilities. That is money owed over the next 30 years that we simply do not have. Now, once again, I’m telling you what the condition of government was before the coronavirus crisis.

Now, we’ve lost billions of dollars, and the government has to navigate. Gov. Ige has said that he may have to impose furloughs or lay off public workers. That may be the only sound way he can balance the budget. He’s also planning to borrow billions of dollars to balance the budget, and that’s a double-edged sword. That may give us some immediate relief and may hide the fact that our longer-term problems are not being dealt with, but it’s going to put a burden on taxpayers in the future for decades to come. We may have our grandchildren and great-grandchildren paying for the debt that we incurred during the coronavirus crisis, and that’s not a good thing for the economy or the people of Hawaii.

Miro: Well, that’s going to play out nationwide, in states that haven’t opened up their economy, so to speak, and continue with the shutdowns. That’s one of the questions: Are these effective?

Akina: I’m not an epidemiologist, so I’m not in a position to criticize Hawaii’s leaders for these very difficult health decisions that they have to make. There is a lot of criticism out there by medical personnel, by epidemiologists, such as a very famous one at Harvard, that says that the efficacy we’re looking for, the solutions are not really in the offing, that these are not effective strategies when compared to what has taken place globally and regions that have managed to actually bring down the coronavirus levels.

Once again, that’s out of my area of expertise. I’m commenting primarily upon the economic impact. While there are major steps that have to be taken to control the coronavirus and to bring its levels down, I think we have to be just as committed to fixing the economy. We can’t throw the economy out with the bathwater. We can’t make it an either-or, either public safety and health, on one hand, or the opportunity for the economy to recover.

We’ve got to be aggressively going after both of these goals, because even if we managed to bring down the levels of the coronavirus, we’re going to be facing economic devastation that has a harm to human life, in and of itself — people losing their jobs, their livelihood, their capacity to work and have dignity, and so forth. That has a tremendous impact upon human life itself. We really believe the government has to be even more committed to reestablishing the economy and reopening it in a sane and rational way.

Miro: They’ve been talking about it for quite some time, trying to get the economy not so reliant upon tourism, and now, they really need to do that.

Akina: There’s no question about it. We must diversify our economy, and we must have industries that are tourism-proof, so to speak. We’ve known that very clearly since the ’50s. It was something that government tried to address in the ’70s, and yet, we haven’t done a good job of that at all. Our government is overly reliant upon three sectors: tourism, government, and military. 

But we have to be realistic also. The mantra “diversify” is a long-term commitment to making Hawaii attractive to business and capital, and making Hawaii a place where entrepreneurs can prosper. No question about it. We’ve got to implement those things that actually make Hawaii good for business. But the reality is we have to get tourism back now. We’re not talking about an economy that is currently dependent upon tourism because tourism has come to a standstill. We have to work very hard to reestablish tourism as well.

The silver lining is that we can do things in the reestablishment of tourism that help to preserve our values. We can set a reset button, and we can make sure that we’re operating a tourism industry that is far more sustainable, is far more sensitive to cultural values in Hawaii. The point I’m trying to make is this: While we absolutely must be committed to diversification of the economy, it does not make sense for us now to attack tourism and to have a prejudice against it because, frankly, for our survival, we’ve got to get as much tourism back as we possibly can in the immediate future.

Miro: Based on what you see now, do you feel the neighbor islands will be first to implement that on a more wide-scale basis than Oahu?

Akina: I would just say this, that there are many opportunities for neighbor islands to take advantage of moving upward in terms of the tourist economy and diversification, especially if they keep their COVID numbers down. And that may be able to allow some lessons to be learned for us on Oahu. There’s always the contest between local governments and statewide governance. I actually believe that the counties themselves have a lot of wisdom, and they have the most at stake in terms of building back their economies. The central government of the state would do well, perhaps, to let the  counties take greater initiative and get themselves out of the hole that they’re in.

Miro: That seems like what has been the case since the beginning of this with the handling of the coronavirus with the mayors of the respective neighbor islands: Kim, of course, Victorino and Kawakami. 

Any closing words, any closing thoughts for the listeners on this Sunday morning on our public access programming, Keli’i Akina, Ph.D., the CEO [and] president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii?

Akina: First, I’d say this: I think the government needs to be more open and transparent about how healthcare decisions are made. We need to [give] people the confidence that the best data and best theory are being used. Secondly, don’t throw the economy out with the bathwater. We need to restore the economy. There’s a lot of work to be done. While we recognize the role of the government in protecting public health, the state must also reduce nonessential spending, reduce taxation, lighten the burden on Hawaii’s business people, the entrepreneurs and families. More transparency also will go a long way toward bringing us together to end this crisis.

In the end, I would just say this: I’m hopeful that if enough people speak out and let government know that it must be accountable and transparent, [then] we can move ourselves in the right direction. Thank you very much. Enjoyed being with you today.

Miro: Once again, we’ve been speaking with Keli’i Akina, the president and CEO of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. You can get them on their webpage, and read all about it at grassrootinstitute.org. That’s grassrootinstitute.org. Thanks so much for joining us, Keli’i, and have yourself a great Sunday.

Akina: Aloha to everyone.

Miro: You’ve been listening to Sunday morning public access programming on the H Hawaii Media family of radio stations on Oahu. Mahalo for listening to this H Hawaii Media Radio Station. Have a great day. 

The views and opinions expressed in this public access programming do not necessarily represent those of H Hawaii Media’s family of radio stations.


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