As COVID-19 Cases Surge on Maui, County Leaders Balance Public Health vs. Devastated Economy
As COVID-19 surges on Maui, with an average of 30 new cases per day over the past two weeks, County leadership has experienced an even tougher balancing act between protecting public health and not doing more harm to an already devastated economy.
In a 2 ½-hour Maui County COVID-19 Town Hall Webinar on Monday night, host Kelly King, a Maui County Councilmember, said: “There’s debate about whether it is more harmful to shut down everything and have people in [economic] distress versus risking everybody’s lives and health … I happen to think that health and people’s lives are of utmost importance and come first, but I do understand the economics of what’s happening.”
King went on to say it was important to get the federal aid earmarked for Hawaiʻi from the recent coronavirus relief package as quickly as possible to help people affected by the pandemic.
On Tuesday morning, the Hawai’i Tourism Authority hosted a virtual “Hospitality Industry Update for Maui County.” Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino told the group that Maui had about 24 percent lodging occupancy during the last quarter of 2020.
“Twenty-four percent,” he reiterated. “Compared to other counties right now it sounds good, but to where we were it is incredibly devastating.”
Victorino went on to lambaste Steve O’Neal, who during King’s Town Hall presented scientific findings and consensus from an informal COVID-19 group on Kaua’i. O’Neal, a former UN disaster response team leader, talked about Maui’s current surge and suggested ways to reduce the spread, including modifying the Safe Travels Program for transpacific travelers.
“All my data is showing you guys (Maui) is in trouble,” he said. “… I’m worried if there is too much faith [COVID-19 cases] will just naturally settle down after the holidays.”
Victorino told the approximately 180 people on the virtual Hospitality Industry Update: “The naysayers who want to shut down the industry are … pounding their hands real loud to say we got to shut down now because the numbers are too high and you got to close down. We all know that if I shut down Maui, the real estate is going to fall pretty quick and more importantly, I don’t know if we can recover. And it will take us even more years to recover than anything. So I’m fighting hard, with your help, to keep you open. Help me keep you open.”
Victorino continued: “If you watched last night there is a group, called the County Council, and Kelly King is leading the charge. … You go tell her what I said: ‘You are not going to take over this County without a fight from the mayor and the people. I will guarantee you that’.”
In November, the County Council passed a resolution urging the mayor to establish a rapid-response COVID-19 task force. But the Mayor rejected it saying at the time that the County’s “COVID-19 response teams were established a long time ago.”
The Town Hall’s speakers on Monday included Maui County Managing Director Sandy Baz, who outlined the Mayor’s recent proposed rules to combat the recent surge of cases on Maui to Hawai’i Gov. David Ige.
The proposed rules included further restricting capacity in large retail facilities and smaller retailers, testing essential workers who stayed on Maui for longer than 24 hours and requiring travelers into Maui County to download a contact tracing app. Victorino said he expects a response soon from Ige.
But the Mayor’s request stopped short of “closing businesses.” Baz said during a media briefing Monday that closing businesses would not solve the problem of community spread. It was a conclusion made after consulting with the State Department of Health and the governor.
During the Town Hall, Dr. Michael Shea, ICU Medical Director and Physician Lea at Maui Memorial Medical Center, said Maui has been “very fortunate that the COVID-19 cases have not been very sick,” with seven people currently hospitalized, including two on ventilators.
“We’re now doing fine from a capacity standpoint,” he said. “But with our [case] numbers going up, we would not be surprised if hospitalization numbers match that in the coming weeks.”
Dr. Shea said Maui Memorial Medical Center has 219 licensed beds with a surge plan to allow for 300 beds. There are 31 ICU beds, with 15 for COVID-19 patients or those who are under investigation for COVID-19. There also is the ability to have up to 90 ventilators for use on the island.
King said another ongoing debate is about who is responsible for the surge: “One is that tourists are superspreaders and the other is residents’ social gatherings are superspreaders.”
In a presentation during the Town Hall, Baz said that since Oct. 18 (three days after the Safe Travels Program began), the County has provided about 14,500 free tests to County residents and travelers who are taking a voluntary second test. Of those 14,500 tests, 310 were positive.
Baz said the breakdown the last couple of weeks was about 80 percent community spread, 17 percent travel-related residents and 2 percent travel-related visitors.
But King pointed out that a higher percentage of residents opt for the free tests than tourists (who don’t want to jeopardize their vacations or flights home).
Victorino told the hospital industry members on the update again: “You’ve got to help me, help us stay open.” He said to make sure signs to wear masks and follow safety protocols were on their properties. He also said to remind visitors that masks are required outdoors, when not swimming (and when not able to maintain 6 feet from others).
After new Hawai’i Tourism Authority marketing videos were shown that highlighted PGA players enjoying the state’s beauty, adventures and culture pre-COVID-19, Victorino said it would be more helpful now if these marketing videos would show current conditions with people wearing masks.
“We’re into this New Year, and our numbers have been high,” Victorino said, but was hopeful the arrival of the vaccine would help.
“Once you are vaccinated,” he said, “the chances of getting COVID-19 drop substantially. Hopefully we’ll continue to get more and up the anti.”