Highlights of April 13-14 meetings of the Hawai‘i State Senate Special Committee on COVID-19
At the Tuesday, April 14, meeting, the Hawai‘i State Senate Special Committee asked Attorney General Clare Connors as to whether the State can legally hold a traveler in quarantine, and if that person could be required to pay for their accommodations. She replied yes, but she would have to look into the question of payment.
The Special Committee followed up with a question of whether travelers could be required to leave the state immediately if they did not have a designated place of quarantine for the full 14 days. Connors indicated that she believed that the policy was in place to discourage visitors, but felt it would be okay if they were to go back home sooner. The Special Committee expressed concerns that the State may not have the resources to ensure the compliance of travelers, and expressed a preference that they instead be turned away.
On the subject of foreclosures and evictions, the Special Committee asked Connors what the State was doing regarding such and what, if any, further action will be taken by the Governor. The Attorney General replied that she expects Governor Ige will take additional action, but is unsure what those actions might be at this time. She said that the Office of Consumer Protection is handling these areas of concern, and has a resource website (http://cca.hawaii.gov/blog/office-of-consumer-protection/) and a dedicated phone line – 808-586-2634 – which is open daily from 8 a.m. until noon.
Ross Higashi, Deputy Director of the Airports Division of the Department of Transportation (DOT), reported that, in regards to quarantine procedures, passengers are required to complete forms, including their contact and accommodation information, and have to sign stating they understand the quarantine requirements and that they will adhere to those requirements. Airport staff checks IDs and confirms the information given on the forms. The Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) is reportedly collecting passenger information and doing follow-up by calling each hotel to confirm passenger reservations and checking in with each passenger three times during the 14-day quarantine period.
The Special Committee expressed its concerns about the procedures now in place, and Higashi said he will revisit them to ensure that all information about accommodations is confirmed before passengers are allowed to leave the airport, as well as including the tracking of rental cars into the revised procedures.
He also said he will follow-up with the HTA to confirm that these checks include passengers staying at private residences, as well as Hawaii residents travelling interisland. Higashi said he is committed to working with the HTA and the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (HIEMA) to have a daily passenger compliance report generated.
In speaking with Dr. Bruce Anderson, Director of the Department of Health (DOH), the Special Committee sought to clarify what specifically was limiting the State’s ability to expand testing. Dr. Anderson explained that the prohibitive factor was not a lack of tests, but in fact, an insufficient supply of personal protective equipment to allow workers to safely administer the tests.
The Special Committee followed up asking what policies, if any, exist around universal testing across all laboratories in the state. Dr. Anderson replied that the DOH would look at developing more explicit policies on how outside testing is conducted and what types of medical proof will be necessary to return to work or enter nursing homes, etc. The department would also need to increase its capacity for testing and contact tracing if we are going to reopen the State.
Turning to unemployment insurance, Scott Murakami, Director of the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations (DLIR), reported that the State has already paid out over $20 million in benefits, paying out over $11 million last week alone. He said the State will likely need to borrow money due to a shortfall of federal funds and programs to cover the difference in existing funds.
To decrease the traffic to the centralized Unemployment Insurance portal on the mainframe, DLIR launched three websites on initial filings, biweekly claims, and filing status, based on services needed on April 14.
The main unemployment insurance website is now open 24/7, and includes a step-by-step guide and a FAQ section. Murakami said the department created different phone numbers for filers based on the specific services needed which are available on its website. DLIR has also established email addresses specific by county.
The Special Committee expressed its desire to Murakami to see more attention be paid to information and service geared towards helping the public navigate the unemployment insurance procedures.
Murakami also reported that the department received 18 redeployed employees from the Attorney General’s office and Department of Human Resources Development (DHRD) the day before, but those workers were only temporary and available for this week. Committee members expressed their dismay that these workers would only be available long enough to be trained and were unsure how this would be helpful to DLIR. Murakami acknowledged that it was not ideal, but appreciated any help the department is able to receive.
He also reported on the expansion of call/claims centers: one at the main branch of the Hawaii State Library with 10 staff members, and another to be opened at the Hawai‘i Convention Center on Tuesday, April 21. The team at the library will help with processing, inputting, and monitoring claims, adding more to the team as needed.
At the Monday, April 13, meeting, Ryker Wada, Director of the Department of Human Resources Development, reported that, besides the 15 employees from the Attorney General’s office and three from DHRD that were sent to DLIR, an additional 20 category 3 employees will be redeployed next week to DLIR, with 20 more if DLIR can ensure additional training facilities capacity. The Special Committee once again committed Senate staff and space to address the training and facilities concerns. The committee also expressed a desire to redeploy enough staff to DLIR to facilitate an around-the-clock operation of processing claims and dispersing checks to unemployment claimants.
Besides DLIR, Wada reported that all other State departments have failed to submit requests for additional staffing needs. He said DHRD is prepared to match the skillset of category 3 employees with those departments’ job descriptions once request are received.
While the Departments of Agriculture and Business, Economic Development and Tourism (DBEDT) have submitted information to the Special Committee using its form, they have not using the forms from DHRD. DHRD contacts each department’s human resources office, who will then notify category 3 employees of their status. Once those employees are redeployed, they will get information on their duties and responsibilities.
Back to the subject of monitoring travelers, Rona Suzuki of the Department of Taxation said that DBEDT was the responsible agency for the development of a “safe travels” app through the vendor Tapiki. The original quote of cost was $65,000 (an amount that may be reimbursed by federal dollars) and additional enhancements for Apple and Android platforms are being discussed. The app is already being used by DOT and HIEMA staff operating airport checkpoints and has replaced the paper process using the Agriculture form.
Concerning General Excise Tax (GET) payments, Suzuki reported that her department has not changed the deadlines for GET returns and estimated payments, and indicated that it was important for the State to continue its collections as a means of collecting information about the state of the economy.
And finally, the Governor’s Chief of Staff Linda Chu Takayama reported on Monday that the State has received 100 Abbott test kits. Each test kit produces five tests in total, and the federal government is controlling the sale and distribution of these rapid test machines.
As per their previous discussion with her pertaining to visitor restrictions, committee members clarified that they were not asking Governor Ige to close the airports to non-essential travel, but requested that he join county mayors in writing a letter to President Trump asking that he issue an order to temporarily stop such travel into the State. If the Governor chooses not to, they would hope that he at least make a statement to the public explaining his rationale in not doing so. Chu Takayama indicated that she would take the questions and requests back to the Governor.
She also reported that some senators and representatives will be part of an economic recovery committee that the Governor is creating to address the State’s long-term plan going forward. Those involved in public health and the economic sector will also be part of this committee.
The Special Committee also asked for the administration’s plan for maximizing the federal funds being provided to the State through the CARES Act. Chu Takayama replied that there is no written plan or organizational chart for dealing with this issue. Parts of this structure were described to be in “various documents.” The federal government was supposed to release additional details on the funding on Tuesday, April 14.
Chu Takayama said that Department of Taxation Director Suzuki will be the lead on telling departments what funds are available, and what deadlines they face. The Governor’s entire cabinet will also be involved in this process, as each department will be responsible for maximizing the federal funds available and for tracking any related spending. The Special Committee suggested a written plan and funding matrix be created, and that his information be posted, so the public has access.
The committee also asked the Governor’s chief of staff if whether the administration’s lack of timeliness in executing the redeployment of State workers may result in furloughs. She said she could not comment on any future plans regarding that.