A Business Perspective on What We Learned in Hawaii from the COVID Epidemic

One of the must punch-to-the-gut moments during the COVID pandemic was when a local police officer threatened to arrest the owner of the neighboring business if she opened her business. When I saw the cop circling the parking lot a few times the next day I knew he was serious….and something had gone drastically wrong with our response to COVID. This was very early on, and things got worse and better and worse again.

My problem was basing the early restrictions on the idea of “essential” instead of relative safety.

I 100% get it that a cruise ship or a theater performance was neither safe nor essential and should not have been allowed during the height of the pandemic.

That said, our leaders’ inability to look at safety as well as some notion of essentiality was hugely frustrating for small business owners. Clearly, a large big box store, especially the checkout clerks, was very high on the danger spectrum. I could imagine no more of a dangerous job than the Safeway checkout clerks. So, these businesses were certainly essential, but they were very low on the safety scale.

Most businesses had some level of essentialness. For example, the workers and owners certainly depended on those businesses for their livelihood–something most categorize as essential, at least to them. An open-air restaurant at that time could certainly make the claim for a fairly high level of safety. And, for certain, the jobs and income they provided were essential for many families.

My point is that the blunt tools our leaders were based on were fairly shaky reasoning. 

On a side note, I found it very curious that the large, often national brand chains, did not face a day of closure while hundreds of small, locally owned businesses, spent 1-2 months shuttered and many inevitably were shuttered forever.

Another lesson learned (from my perspective) is that the connections between science, messaging, and policy were tenuous. For example, a proper-fitting respirator (an N95) offers great protection, but few had access to them. KN95s, which were abundant, are pretty good, much better than the flimsy paper-thin and ill-fitted masks most people wore. 

A physician friend just laughed when I asked her if the masks most were wearing provided any protection. Those who wore bandanas or gaiters had almost no protection. All masks are not created equal and so focusing on a global “mask” mandate left many with little or no protection.

We are still requiring our public school students to wear masks, any masks, despite quite a bit of evidence that these are mostly ineffective (and counterproductive to learning).

A good and reasonable policy would have been to rapidly get KN95s out to people and promote their use. Anything less was just “mask theater,” the illusion of protection.

Finally, I also find it interesting that when nearly all businesses were re-opened and providing products and services to customers, our County and State workers seemed absent in their offices. Because of this, the backlog for most County services grew dramatically. It took me three months to get an appointment to renew my license, which meant driving “unlicensed” for a whole month. I know of no private businesses that weren’t back to work as quickly as possible; it’s a shame that our civil servants and our teachers could find a way to make that happen, too. 

I also note that our government workers at every level did not lose a dime of pay or benefits during this time, while the private sector suffered greatly, with the unemployment rate hitting 16% in Hawaii for a time. 

I hope that we’ll look back at the pandemic and take some of the lessons learned into the future. I also hope that we’ll expect more of our leaders in the future.