Honolulu Mayor on pandemic, face masks, criticism, & his message to mayoral candidates

Local News

We’re three months into the COVID-19 pandemic, and besides the obvious, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell noticed something different about Waikiki. 

“You should go on a Sunday by the Waikiki groin. It is packed, with all local people!”

He cracked a smile, then a frown. 

“The locals have returned to Waikiki! But they’re not wearing face coverings. And they’re not all family units. But I’m not gonna go around telling thousands, ‘EY, you got to put on your mask!’” 

To curb the spread, the Mayor required face coverings in most public settings–with exceptions. 

Referring to the restrictions enacted in March, Caldwell said, “We don’t want to go back. Can you imagine having to withdraw and go backwards? I don’t know if people will put up with it.”

Caldwell says he’s now considering making face coverings mandatory everywhere you go – no exceptions. 

That’s only if cases on Oahu continue to spike. Caldwell leads the most populated Hawaiian island, with the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases. 

“There’s nearly a million people. We live very close together, it’s dense. We still have these clusters, we have to be very careful.”

Tough decisions—Caldwell says he’s made plenty during the pandemic. 

“It’s those late night hours, when it’s quiet, I think about the impacts you’re having on your community,” he admitted. 

When making decisions to keep the county COVID-free, Caldwell said he used a combination of instinct, advice, and inspiration. 

“We looked at what other mayors are doing in the country. The first place to shut down completely was San Francisco. Mayor London Breed took the action and acted before any state or city did. Our order to shut down Oahu was based on her order,” he explained. 

“We have a medical panel and we meet every Thursday for advice. We work with Governor David Ige. The county mayors talk on a regular basis.”

Like the other county mayors, Caldwell enacted tough mandates to curb the spread of the virus. It deeply impacted local businesses and jobs, in a state that relies heavily on tourism.  

“I think of all the hotels, that are empty. It’s not so much they’re empty, it’s the people who work at those hotels, the people who live in Ewa Beach or Waipahu or elsewhere around the island, and they don’t have a job.” 

He said, “We’re at “Depression” level unemployment on Oahu. How do we pull ourselves out of that? The only way we do that is open up to visitors in a safe way. So we can get our folks working again.”

Caldwell hopes the pre-travel testing program for visitors starting August 1 in lieu of the mandatory quarantine will help revive Oahu’s economy. But he is worried. 

“Only if we can manage the number of cases. That’s incumbent on the guys on the other side of Punchbowl Street,” he said, referring to the state Department of Health. 

“They hold our future in their hands, because by August 1st, visitors start to arrive. We’ve got to be ready where there’s a positive case and trace immediately of who else came into contact.”

Worrying aside, the mayor says he’s proud the county enacted “Kalakaua Open Street Sundays” and the “Sidewalk Dining Program,”where restaurants can physically distance customers by allowing tables on street sidewalks. He adds that the county helped feed 140,000 families through local food banks. 

Not all of his decisions were well-received by the public. As Caldwell loosened restrictions on the island, local musicians balked at his order that allowed bars to reopen without live singing.

Caldwell eventually changed his tune, allowing for live musicians to perform at restaurants and bars with certain conditions to prevent potential spread of the coronavirus. 

“It comes with the territory. As a mayor, you’re going to get criticized for whatever action you take. You can’t please everybody. I go to sleep at night, knowing the decisions made were based on the best medical and science practices at the time. If there’s new information forthcoming later, we adjust.”

His term ends January 2021. 

“I get sad. I love this job of public service, being the mayor, because you’re up close and personal with the people. And the incoming mayor, I would tell him or her… everything you do has an immediate impact.”

“Right now when I leave, the pandemic won’t be pau. I don’t think there’ll be a vaccine yet. You’ve got to think every day, the actions you take could determine if someone lives or dies.”

If we have a huge increase in COVID19 cases, and we get that second wave. If we max out on ventilators, people are going to make “triage type” decisions where someone gets a ventilator or not.

You need to remind yourself that every decision you make, it’s about protecting the public. Every decision I’ve made, what the other mayors or Governor has made, is about safety first. As hard as it is, as hard as the economic impact is, it’s about protecting the public. And saving lives.”


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