COVID mandates lead to crisis of aloha

With the rising counts of coronavirus cases and the overcrowding of our hospital facilities, Hawaii is facing a serious crisis. But I’m not talking about the coronavirus. While that crisis is real, I’m talking about the crisis of aloha.

All around us, we can see the way that COVID-19 and its new “Delta” variant is pitting the residents of our island state against each other. There are clearly those who value our government’s management of the current health emergency. And there are clearly those who are worried about protecting individual liberty and freedom of choice.

Unfortunately, these values are sometimes viewed as being in conflict with each other. When that happens, our neighbors and friends become divided, tempers flare and conflict ensues.

But this disagreement doesn’t need to be defined by anger and conflict. The reality is that it’s possible to embrace both values — public health and freedom —  while working together to find a solution that is best for our state.

In doing so, we must be true to each value. Yes, government is needed during times of crises and must occasionally take exceptional action for the greater good. Yet, at the same time, government must not go so far as to destroy the very liberties it exists to protect. That is a line that must not be crossed.

As the coronavirus state of emergency grinds on and new proclamations continue to roll out, we find ourselves facing a critical question: Where do we draw the line? At what point do these orders so infringe on freedom that they no longer are tolerable?

To some extent, this is a question that everyone must wrestle with in his or her own personal life. Maybe you choose not to go places that require a mask. Maybe you choose not to go places that do not require one. Maybe you choose to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Maybe you choose not to do so.

The operative word here is “choose.” And that is something that may come under threat very soon.

This week, Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi announced a new series of restrictions on businesses and their patrons. Referencing the governor’s refusal to initiate a new lockdown in response to the rise in coronavirus cases, the mayor put forward a partial lockdown in the form of a vaccine requirement for establishments such as restaurants, bars, gyms and arcades, effective Sept. 13.

Employees of those establishments must receive the COVID-19 vaccine or show a negative test from the prior seven days. Patrons must demonstrate proof of the vaccine or a negative test taken within 48 hours prior to the visit. In addition, serving or selling alcohol after 10 p.m. will be prohibited.

Meanwhile, the Honolulu City Council is considering a resolution urging the mayor to implement a digital vaccine passport along the model of New York’s Excelsior Passport — a controversial program that has been criticized by civil rights groups for its infringement upon privacy, lack of security, civil liberties concerns and inequitable impact upon certain groups.

What’s more, there is no indication that the new rules will stop there. Blangiardi indicated he is considering a general vaccine mandate, if government officials are not satisfied with the results of the new restrictions. He told KHON2: “If we see any really bad behaviors, we will either shut it down or we will impose a vaccine mandate.”

I recognize that the government has a role in managing a public health crisis. I also understand the government’s responsibility to educate the public on vaccinations and appreciate its role in making the vaccine widely available. But there is a point where the exercise of state authority can cross the line into infringement of liberty. That point comes when the individual’s freedom to choose disappears.

We can debate the advisability of vaccine mandates for particular jobs or activities, but we can also still make the case that choice should remain in those situations. When reasonable exemptions are in place, no one should end up losing employment or opportunity because they choose not to be vaccinated.

Of course, this is a complex issue, and there is a lively argument to be had about whether it’s fair to make someone choose between their job and the vaccine. About 2,000 public workers recently filed a lawsuit over this issue, and I look forward to the outcome.

But no matter where you stand on the more specialized questions, it should be easy to agree that a generalized vaccine mandate for all residents is a bridge too far. That is the point at which choice disappears and the coercive power of the government reaches into the realm of personal freedom.

What will happen to the individual who has already recovered from COVID-19 and carries the antibodies, but is concerned about the health effects of getting the vaccine? Should that person be subject to a mandate?

What about someone with a religious objection? Or someone who supports vaccination in general but has concerns, whether medical or ethical, about the COVID-19 vaccine in particular?

We cannot ignore the precedent that a universal mandate would set. It would establish that the executive needs nothing more than an emergency declaration in place before he or she can unilaterally require all Hawaii residents to receive certain medical treatments.

Is that the standard we want to set?

This won’t be the last emergency our state goes through, and what is controversial now may become routine in the future. We are facing a real challenge to civil liberties in Hawaii, and it behooves us to stop for a moment and ponder the future.

We can agree to disagree on many things about the vaccine and the management of the coronavirus. But we must come together when the government overreaches and threatens fundamental rights.

This commentary was Keli’i Akina’s weekly “President’s Corner” column for Sept. 4, 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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