Hawaii Gov. Ige reflects on the coronavirus and the shutdown of tourism

AUDREY McAVOY Associated Press

HONOLULU — As governor of Hawaii, David Ige faced a volcanic eruption that destroyed 700 homes, protests against the construction of a multi-billion-dollar, state-of-the-art telescope and a false alarm about an incoming ballistic missile. During the COVID-19 pandemic, tourism shut down and Hawaii’s unemployment rate rose to 22.4%.

The crisis response is a way of summarizing the Democrat’s eight years in Hawaii, which began with the inauguration of his successor, Lt. gov. Josh Green, scheduled to end on December 5th.

“It’s stressful, especially during public health emergencies,” Ige said in a recent interview reflecting on his two terms in office. “There are people who don’t like what you do and they don’t like the choices you make. And today they are able to tell you that.”

Still, the 65-year-old former electrical engineer said he agreed with other governors who told him shortly after his 2014 election that he was about to land the best job he could ever have.

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“They have a direct impact on people’s quality of life. What we do every day matters to people,” said Ige.

Ige cited progress he had made on affordable housing and homelessness. But what he’s proudest of is how he’s responded to the pandemic, and for that he wants to be remembered after he leaves.

A report by the Commonwealth Fund, a New York-based nonprofit foundation, found that Hawaii had the lowest “excess mortality rate” among the 50 states, a statistic that measures deaths that exceed historical norms for a given time and place. Ige said Hawaii’s healthcare system has always been able to care for both COVID-19 patients and others during the pandemic.

Ige said he wants to protect Hawaii’s elderly and the health and safety of residents. He didn’t want Hawaii’s hospitals to be overwhelmed as people would struggle to get medical care from a neighboring state.

“We knew it wasn’t about driving someone to the next county or flying someone to get services. We’re 2,500 miles from anything,” Ige said.

Ige signed executive orders mandating the wearing of masks in public and limiting the size of gatherings. Unique among the 50 states, Hawaii imposed and actively enforced a 14-day quarantine on incoming travelers. That order effectively shut down the state’s tourism industry, which is a major contributor to the economy, but officials believe it also slowed the spread of COVID-19.

Kirk Caldwell, who was Honolulu’s mayor when the pandemic began, said Ige is under “a lot of pressure” from people urging him to enforce public health protections more quickly. Later, people urged him to relax as conditions improved.

Ige also juggled some counties that wanted more restrictions while others wanted looser rules.

Andria Tupola, a member of the Honolulu City Council who ran against Ige as the Republican nominee for governor in 2018, praised Ige’s even temper and acceptance of criticism. However, she said he should have shared power with state legislatures or held public hearings instead of issuing two years of COVID-19 executive orders.

“You have to step back and move away from making all the decisions, and then start trusting that other leaders can participate in the decision-making collectively,” she said.

Hawaii House Speaker Scott Saiki, a Democrat, said Ige’s cautious approach has contributed to both successes and failures. It was important to Ige not to make hasty decisions and not overreact during the pandemic, but too often the governor suffered from “analysis paralysis,” he said.

“There were so many times we wanted him to just take control of the situation and provide some leadership and direction,” Saiki said. “And it just didn’t happen.”

The legislature stepped in several times to assume roles one would expect of the executive branch.

Saiki pointed out how the Legislature mobilized volunteers to help the state process unemployment insurance claims that came in during the pandemic. He also said lawmakers worked with Honolulu hospitals to set up two COVID-19 mass vaccination clinics.

There is also the Thirty Meter Telescope project. The ongoing standoff over construction atop Mauna Kea, a site many native Hawaiians consider a sacred, deepened division in the community.

The House of Representatives later formed a working group that developed recommendations for a new approach to managing Mauna Kea, resulting in legislation that Ige signed into law.

The governor said he regularly evaluated his response to emergencies and tried to adjust.

“It’s always about focusing on priorities, making decisions, and then doing what’s best for the community,” he said. “I’ve tried to make sure we keep that focus.”

Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami said he admires Ige’s ability to handle difficult situations and criticism gracefully. He said he aspires to be such a leader.

“I just saw one person who was willing to stand in the middle of a storm, wake up every day and give it their all,” Kawakami said.

Several people who have worked closely with Ige said they never saw him lose his temper or hit out at colleagues, even in stressful situations. Observers from near and far said they had never heard him speak ill of anyone.

“He’s the most apolitical politician I’ve come across in my time as mayor,” Caldwell said.