What? There’s a Tier 5? COVID tier confusion bespeaks a bigger problem

More than a year into the COVID-19 emergency, we’re still experiencing the many ways in which the government can regulate and limit our daily lives.

The latest reminder came last week when Honolulu’s mayor announced the county is now in “Tier 4” of its reopening plan. The tiers, which are helpfully explained in a colorful chart and a 35-page supplementary document, now are reportedly tied to vaccination rates.

Strangely, the announcement is when many of us learned for the first time that there also is a Tier 5. If your response to hearing about Tier 5 was to wonder where it came from, you’re not alone. It received little to no publicity, and was touted only after the county reached Tier 4, which many thought was the extent of the tiers.

Now that we are in Tier 4, formerly forbidden activities such as social gatherings, events and nightclubs are permitted, albeit with limits on the number of people allowed and a requirement that attendees show proof of vaccination and provide contact tracing information. We also were sternly warned that we need to achieve a 60% vaccination rate if we wish to move to Tier 5, under which the COVID-19 restrictions will be further liberalized.

To reach the lifting of all restrictions — variously called “normal,” “freedom” or Tier 6 — the county vaccination rate must reach at least 70%.

My goodness, this could go on for years. And why weren’t we told about these extra tiers sooner? Not only has there been constant confusion about what is permissible within each tier, now we are being told there are more tiers than originally indicated. Is it possible additional tiers could be slipped into the mix, extending “normal” out to Tier 7 or 8?

The tier system and the confusion it has been causing are byproducts of a deeper problem: the fact that Hawaii’s emergency management law is inadequate to address extended health emergencies such as the coronavirus pandemic. From the beginning of the lockdowns, the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii has been warning about its lack of accountability and the damage it has been causing to our political system’s constitutional balance of powers.

The reality is that Hawaii residents have no voice in the way that their government has been dealing with the coronavirus. Moreover, unchecked executive decision-making — like the creation and enforcement of the tier system — has been conducted without the openness that would help ensure greater public understanding and cooperation. For example, who exactly are the officials who put together these complicated charts and pages and pages of social proscriptions? Inquiring minds want to know.

In our report Lockdowns Versus Liberty,” issued in January, we suggested that the state’s emergency powers law be reformed to prevent indefinite emergency periods and give room for public feedback on emergency orders. State law, after all, is quite explicit that our states of emergency are supposed to end after 60 days. Yet our governor continues to issue “supplemental” proclamations — 21 since March 2020 — that have extended the crisis into what is now its 15th month.

Our “Lockdowns Versus Liberty” report even touched on the possibility of creating a separate emergency management act to deal with public health emergencies, as it is clear that the current law is unable to address the complicated issues that arise when public health, liberty, privacy and safety collide.

During the legislative session, it looked as though we might see some attempt to restore the balance of powers through HB103, which would have required legislative approval to extend an emergency and justification for suspending state law. Unfortunately, the bill failed at the final hurdle, leaving Hawaii’s residents to wonder if our leaders are trying to avoid accountability for the COVID-19 emergency.

There’s a reason that government transparency is tied so strongly to public trust. History is replete with examples of how a lack of transparency can lead to corruption, misuse of public funds, cover-ups, scandals and unethical behavior. Abuses of the British crown led to the signing of the Magna Carta and the beginning of accountability for tax increases. Martin Luther’s “Ninety-five Theses” was, in part, an attempt to demand accountability for clergy selling plenary indulgences.

I recognize that the governor, Hawaii’s mayors and our public health officials are trying to do their best in a difficult situation. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the tier system or the government’s efforts to protect public health. What’s more, I agree that there is a good rationale for emergency powers when executed with accountability and transparency.

The problem is that there has been too little of either throughout the pandemic. Hawaii’s citizens have been constantly bombarded with changing rules, draconian penalties and little to no explanations concerning the restriction schemes.

Instead of paddling in the same canoe, we are peering at charts, trying to figure out what it means to have “pods of 25” at our cousin’s wedding.

If we truly are in this together, then we need to see more openness from our leaders and a better effort to restore accountability to the emergency powers law. Anything else simply leaves Hawaii’s residents feeling frustrated and tier-y.
This commentary was Keli’i Akina’s weekly “President’s Corner” column for June 17, 2021. If you would like to have his columns emailed to you on a regular basis, please call 808-864-1776 or email info@grassrootinstitute.org.

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