Yes, we have a crisis — of aloha and governance

Photo by Charley Myers

This commentary was originally published in West Hawaii Today on Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021.

In some ways, the public health threat posed by the coronavirus is not our only worry. Just as important is whether our government has crossed a line that we can’t come back from.

In the effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, is it possible that we have conceded too much? We have lost many liberties, damaged our economy and divided our communities.

Yes, after 18 months of life under a seemingly never-ending state of emergency, Hawaii is facing a crisis of aloha. Rather than respectfully engaging with one another about the lockdowns, masks or vaccines, shouting and name-calling have become commonplace.

This has come about because we also are facing a crisis of governance. The sad reality is that both the Legislature and the courts have abrogated their roles as checks on the governor’s power, and we “the people” effectively have no meaningful say anymore in the policies of our state.

Our state lawmakers could have fixed the state’s faulty emergency powers law during the 2021 legislative session. They considered a bill, House Bill 103, that would have required its approval of any emergency proclamation extensions beyond the plainly stated 60-day limit, and imposed some other reasonable limitations on the governor’s emergency powers as well. But the bill mysteriously died at the last minute.

As for the courts, a lawsuit brought in early 2020 challenged the governor’s emergency extensions, but it was dismissed.

So, our “emergency” continues, with residents not being allowed to testify on some of the most restrictive measures in our state’s history, and generally not having access to the information used to justify those rules.

Did I mention that the mandates have been divisive? Some of us are “essential,” some of us are not. Some of us are getting paid no matter what; too many others are unemployed, scrambling to survive.

More recently, many government and private employees have been told to get vaccinated or lose their jobs. If you want to exercise at a gym, eat at a restaurant or visit other “high risk” places, you need proof of a COVID-19 vaccination or recent COVID-19 testing. If you do not have such proof, you also may not enter certain state buildings, even if you are a taxpayer who presumably has a right to state government services.

Will further mandates require a certain number of booster shots before you can enter certain businesses or facilities? Considering how often the goal posts have been moved since March 2020, it is not unreasonable to think so.

Seriously, what are the metrics now that must be met before our governor and mayors will decide enough is enough? How can we be sure the current state of emergency will ever be lifted?

Most of us will agree that the government has a role in safeguarding public health. But that doesn’t mean the ends should justify all the means, especially since this won’t be Hawaii’s last emergency.

I suggest a priority for the 2022 Legislature should be to approve a bill like the failed HB 103, giving it the right to veto all “state of emergency” extensions, as well as ensure that all emergency measures be narrowly tailored to achieve their stated goals.

The rest of us should continue to speak out, to help Hawaii walk back from the precipice of unending executive rule. We must restore community aloha and make sure our treasured form of constitutional government doesn’t become only a hazy distant memory.

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