Hawaii abandons COVID color-coded tier system, stuck on yellow nearly a year

Always Investigating

HONOLULU (KHON2) — Hundreds of thousands of COVID vaccinations. Fewer hospitalizations. businesses reopening in many places. Why is the state still operating at an act with care level set up nearly a year ago at the peak of the pandemic? Always Investigating takes a look.

The state set up a color-coded system nearly a year ago, and people we spoke to are frustrated that the state’s position on that system hasn’t changed despite very difference circumstances.

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Picture spring 2020: Already a couple months into stay-at-home and safer-at-home orders, individuals, businesses and organizations are waiting for anything that would allow some degree of commerce and individual freedoms to resume. At the time, building such a framework was assigned to the governor’s “recovery navigator” within the executive branch to spearhead.

Finally in May 2020 it came: the color coded “Reopening Hawaii” state tier system ranging from red “stay at home” to blue the “new normal.”

“A lot of effort went into that,” said Carl Bonham, executive director of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization. “It took a long time for it to come out. There were a lot of people involved in putting it together.”

Gov. David Ige announced in May that the state was starting at yellow, “act with care.” Nearly a year later, that’s still where the state stands, even though the Reopening Hawaii framework’s own metrics and health determinants — like ample hospital capacity, and testing — should move us into the green “recovery” phase.

“It does really kind of feel like it was forgotten about, really, quite quickly,” Bonham said.

Why does that matter? Oahu and Kauai made their own tier systems to designate what can and can’t be open.

“It’s very possible that somewhere in that chain of communication, it got lost that if the state didn’t change its matrix, that the counties were going to get stuck,” Bonham said. “To the extent that counties are following it and constraining business based on that, it is problematic. We’ve moved in terms of our case counts and hospitalizations, and the risks just aren’t the same.”

Maui County has had to tighten restrictions above and beyond the state tier in response to outbreaks there in recent weeks and months, even adding an upcoming second-test component for transpacific travelers.

And while Hawaii County Civil Defense refers some businesses back to the state Recovery Navigator’s phases and the website for explanation of ongoing capacity caps there, the Hawaii County mayor’s spokesperson told KHON2 on Friday, April 9: “Our administration has just become aware of the lingering after effects of the state’s 2020 color coded plan and we will work to address any outdated capacity issues in future proclamations.”

Meanwhile in Hawaii county, the spokesperson points out: “There are currently mechanisms in place that allow for larger gatherings for businesses and events that the governor has approved. We intend to continue working with local businesses to support their needs while doing what is needed to curb the threat of COVID-19 in our county.”

As for the governor’s state proclamations, the color chart made its first appearance last year and has technically been an appendix in each and every proclamation since, and even today the Recovery Navigator website shows the peg stuck on yellow “act with care” just as it was in May 2020.

“I don’t have an explanation for why that that matrix sort of got left behind, but it’s pretty clear that it did,” Bonham said of the state’s color chart. “It deserves attention. It really doesn’t make any sense to say you’re still stuck at ‘act with care.’”

Always Investigating asked if the governor will be re-adjusting the color designation, and his spokesperson told us Friday evening that the color codes will not be included in the next emergency proclamation, adding: “While the state’s reopening strategy was created to provide strategic reopening guidance after the initial Stay at Home orders, the governor has since given county mayors authority to implement reopening guidance for their individual, unique counties with the governor’s approval.”

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