University of Hawaii photo
If there is one thing more powerful than COVID-19, apparently it’s a winning football team.
Just a day after Gov. David Ige extended his coronavirus state of emergency for two more months, the University of Hawaii Rainbow Warriors football team played an exciting nationally televised home game at its new Ching Field in Manoa, and that changed everything.
The team beat a nationally ranked rival for the first time in more than 10 years. Yet virtually no fans were in the stands. Neither were there any crowds at its nationally televised home game two weeks before. As the game announcers made clear to their viewers during both events, that’s because UH football was the only major college program in the country that wouldn’t let anyone attend its local football games, not even family members.
But yesterday the governor relented. He and Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi announced they are loosening restrictions on public gatherings, including UH football and volleyball games. Friends and family members will be able to attend the next home football game, and the general public should be able to attend the final games at reduced capacity.
What happened? Did the situation change so much in a few short days?
Unfortunately, there’s no way to know for sure. We are constantly being told that all coronavirus restrictions have been crafted in consultation with experts, but the public still knows very little about who those experts are or what data they are using to make their decisions.
On Thursday, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported that the state Department of Health is refusing to share detailed COVID data with local researchers and epidemiologists, leading to the conclusion that state health officials don’t want independent scientists reviewing their work.
What we do know is that public pressure started building to allow fans into the UH football games even before the Rainbow Warriors’ latest winning game. Newspaper sports writers had complained about the empty stands and artificial crowd noise, and House Speaker Scott Saiki implored the governor just the day before the latest game to allow fans to attend.
Nevertheless, the governor defended his decision to keep Hawaii’s sports stadiums empty. He made vague statements about reopening “various sectors” at the “appropriate time.”
Now, of course, it appears that the “appropriate time” for reopening sports has arrived. And thank goodness for that. But there still is the issue of public trust.
For more than 19 months, critics have been pointing out the logical inconsistencies, lack of fairness and lack of transparency regarding the various state and county lockdown measures. Meanwhile, the official goal posts for a return to normalcy have been moved so often that it’s a wonder anyone takes the official pronouncements seriously anymore.
It didn’t help that in the governor’s latest proclamation, those goal posts seemed to vanish altogether, when he abandoned vaccination percentages as the standard for lifting restrictions and said that no “single metric” would determine the end of the emergency.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, all of these problems are the result of Hawaii’s broken emergency powers law. It was never intended to create a system of unaccountable executive rule that would last for nearly two years. We have created a precedent wherein any threat to our state can legitimize the seemingly endless abuse of executive power.
This will not be the last emergency Hawaii faces. But it can be the last time that due process, transparency and the state’s constitutional balance of powers are tossed aside for months on end. The Hawaii Legislature must reform the state’s emergency management law to create a check on executive power and end the possibility of a never-ending emergency.
Yes, it is possible the Legislature could reform the statute, step in to end executive rule, then pass a series of objectionable laws. But if that happens, at least it will be done openly, with the opportunity for public debate and public testimony — and by elected officials who will have to defend those decisions at the ballot box.
This commentary was Keli’i Akina’s weekly “President’s Corner” column for Oct. 9, 2021. It was also published on Oct. 15, 2021, in The Garden Island newspaper on Kauai. If you would like to have his columns emailed to you on a regular basis, please call 808-864-1776 or email email@example.com.