Public deserves to know more about emergency decision-making

Photo by Charley Myers

When it comes to Hawaii’s coronavirus lockdowns, it seems like deja vu all over again.

After clamping down in March on Hawaii’s economic and social activities, then gradually reopening ever so slightly, lockdown measures more strict than ever were imposed this week with the promise of lasting at least through mid-September.

To call the public’s reaction “mixed” would be an understatement. Some people are worried that we are on the cusp of a very serious wave of infections and deaths. Some worry that our economy cannot weather the impact of another lockdown. Some argue that generalized lockdowns were never an effective way to address the virus, that the state isn’t equipped to follow through with tracing and other methods, or that additional restrictions won’t be effective.

Just to be clear, the Grassroot Institute isn’t here to engage in second-guessing the state leadership. Nor are we here to nitpick. We are here to offer constructive policy options intended to expand individual liberty, accountable government and economic prosperity for Hawaii’s hard-working families, just as we do during “normal” times.

Trying to formulate the right response to the COVID emergency isn’t an easy task. It is less a matter of finding the perfect path and more a case of balancing different and often conflicting interests.

For example, consider the different public concerns and criticisms mentioned above. None of those worries are misplaced. All have merit, and all need to be considered when charting a path forward for our state.

In a strange way, the situation reminds me of the problems faced by the Honolulu rail project.

When you think about it, the fundamental challenge faced by the rail project — and by its supporters — was a lack of public trust. This, in turn, came from a lack of transparency that continues to surround the project to this day.

Now we are looking at a similar problem. We have plenty of information about the general dangers of COVID-19 and the number of infections and deaths in Hawaii, but there is a lack of public trust in the decision-making process. In short, we need more COVID transparency.

The public isn’t alone in wanting to see more of the data. At a recent meeting of the Hawaii House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness, committee members wanted more data so as to provide better transparency and accountability in addressing the crisis. Committee members pointed out that if they had better information about the source of new cases, it would improve both policy and public communications.

Some members recognized that a selective approach to new restrictions could be more effective, but it isn’t possible to be more targeted if you don’t have enough data to know what to target.

As University of Hawaii economist Carl Bonham pointed out, the public is understandably skeptical about rules that close parks while leaving gyms open: “These just don’t make any sense, and the public knows that.”

When we don’t know the “why” behind the current restrictions, it’s inevitable that public trust in the handling of the COVID crisis will erode.

Hawaii’s residents need to know why they are still in a state of lockdown. They need to know why some businesses are being allowed to operate, while others are closed. They need to know why situations that seem low-risk, like visiting a park or sitting on a beach, are forbidden. They need to know why those decisions are being made and how they will help.

Most of all, they need to know that all of their concerns about the COVID crisis — including the economy, jobs, mental health and other issues — are part of the cost/benefit analysis being employed in considering these serious and disturbing restrictions on our liberties.

Whether you’re frustrated by those who oppose lockdowns or by those who support them, you must admit that a little more transparency and data would go a long way toward bringing us together to end this crisis.

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