By Jim Bea Sampaga
Hawaii is one of the few states with low coronavirus cases in the United States. As of June 5th, the state has a total of 664 coronavirus cases according to the state’s Department of Health. The state has also seen a decrease in daily confirmed cases in the past month.
Although Hawaii is flattening the curve, the state’s economy is still struggling to stay afloat as the government’s support is running low.
Businesses are still waiting for their Small Business Administration loans. Some businesses are slowly reopening such as restaurants, barbershops, salons, but the fear is still there. What if this will trigger a second surge of coronavirus case?
The pandemic has also pushed government agencies, businesses, and even schools to do everything online while in quarantine to minimize exposure to coronavirus. However, not everyone has access to the internet.
On May 14, Senator Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) discussed ways she is supporting the Hawaii community during a phone interview with Hawaii Filipino Chronicle.
From signing bills providing more internet access and supporting local journalism to condemning racism against Asians due to the pandemic, Sen. Hirono encourages the federal, state, and local governments to make plans for a long-term solution.
She also addressed concerns regarding the lack of response from SBA, the state’s budget shortfall, unemployment and reopening.
HFC: What new initiatives are you working on to help Hawaii? Is the Congress working to assist states with their budget shortfalls?
HIRONO: A huge part of it is to help Hawaii and the local government fix their budget shortfalls because I wanna see programs that our communities rely on and I don’t want furloughs happening. That is a huge thing. The governors of 50 states, Republican and Democratic governors, wanted $500 billion to help them with that.
It’s one of the biggest areas that I want us to move towards in the next COVID bill. The House bill has that provision but as I said, when Mitch McConnell said that states and local governments can file for bankruptcy, that’s not somebody who’s jumping up and down feeling the sense of urgency about helping the state and local governments with their budget shortfall.
In addition, there are still areas relating to PPP and the unemployment insurance situation. The fact that people are gonna be unemployed for longer than two months or three months, we have to look at the long term of what’s gonna happen to our workers. That’s an area where we’re looking at. The $1,500 one-time payment is hardly enough even if you can get another $500 for every child because, you know, we have to look a lot more in the long term.
I’d like to see support to keep the US Postal Service operating. If we don’t provide some federal money for them, they will have to stop mail services by September. If not, sooner. Seniors and everybody else all across the country that rely on the mail for Social Security checks, medications, or voting by mail because so many states, including Hawaii, are moving toward voting by mail.
I also hope we can put a lot more money into what the healthcare needs are. With our hospitals, our rural hospitals, and all these groups that are providing support for our communities, they probably need more help than the $200 million or so billion that we already provided in the other COVID Bills.
I would say another area that would create jobs is to put a lot of money into infrastructure. There are massive areas. The bill that came out of the house is, I think, a multi-trillion-dollar bill that the house is gonna send to the senate.
HFC: We need more aggressive state and county action to provide economic stabilization and help businesses survive. Do you think it’s time for Hawaii’s governor to step up and institute a relief package or loan program to help small businesses?
HIRONO: Right now, most state governments are facing a massive budget shortfall. The state of Hawaii’s budget shortfall is… originally, I’ve been told $1.5 billion, and thankfully it’s close to $1 billion now. A budget shortfall like that could resolve in people being furloughed and programs being cut. The legislature is coming back into sessions to see what they can do to meet that budget shortfall because they think that’s one of the first things that state and local governments will have to deal with.
One billion in shortfall is very serious for government programs and people working for the government. We have to do everything we can to make sure that people don’t get furloughed. This is why a huge part of what the Democrats want out of the next COVID bill is major support for state and local governments to meet their budget shortfalls. The governors of every state have asked the White House for $500 billion to meet their budget shortfalls.
In the beginning, senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said that state and local governments should declare bankruptcy because he was not interested in providing that kind of support to state and local governments. That is really irresponsible. It’s one of the most irresponsible things that Mitch McConnell said and he said a lot of irresponsible, uncaring things.
The first thing, I think, that state is gonna have to do is figuring out how to keep everybody safe. We have to remember this is a healthcare crisis, and we better deal with the healthcare aspects of it first. Why our country should be pushing for the research and development of a vaccine and how we should be working with the international community to develop a vaccine rather than getting out of the World Health Organization, for example. That’s not the way to go.
This isn’t something we should be doing by ourselves. We should be collaborating, joining forces because this is an international pandemic. There are also things that should be happening at the national level and we continue to push for that. There should be national testing because over 80,000 people have already died in our country. Hawaii has been really fortunate that we are now 25 straight days of fewer than 6 people testing positive. It’s one of the reasons that Kauai is easing up on some of the restrictions and why some of the counties are also easing up on some of their restrictions.
But we have to do it carefully because as Dr. Fauci has testified if we do it too quickly and without adequate safeguards for the public as well as people going back to work, you could have surcharges of this virus.
The other national thing that should be happening is a national supply chain program. Because right now, when the states were short on swabs and test kits and ventilators, they had to buy against each other to get these materials. There should be a national supply program so these resources can get to places that need them. I talked to Gov. Ige, he said it is crazy that they had to outbid another state. They were in a bidding contest for PPEs. That’s not how it should be.
HFC: What is your message to local businesses in our community who rely on financial support from government initiatives during this COVID-19?
HIRONO: I think that we are going to need to provide more long term support. The PPP, the IEDL program.. they don’t respond to a lot of the concerns that small businesses have.
The primary goal is for people to start traveling again and to make people feel safe through actually feeling safe, not we’re gonna tell you you’re safe so you can just go out. No, we need to develop a vaccine. We need to develop other ways to provide treatments so we can address or deal with a healthcare crisis that is this pandemic.
The CARES Act and all of that was just to help people sort of stay afloat but it was not intended to keep them going for the next two years.
We have to do more and there’s gonna be, sadly, more displacement and challenges that we’re gonna face. But first and foremost, if we have a national testing program I think we’ll have a much better idea of how prevalent this virus is and whether we are getting this virus under some sort of control.
[In that way,] we can enable businesses to open up safely and when businesses do open up we better provide protective gear for these businesses. For the president to use his powers to force, to reopen and yet not call for a national testing program for example, or national supply program… is really wrong priorities. He has not used the defense production act the way he should.
HFC: Many small businesses here are still waiting for their SBA loans, such as the EIDL and PPP. What are some actions you are taking to ensure that Hawaii small businesses are going to receive their loans soon?
HIRONO: There’s been a huge number of applications for these loans and sometimes there are two things that happen. One, there’s a delay because of the number of people applying and having to process. The second is that there’s a beginning set amount so in the first and second charges…
I don’t know how much money is left in the second. I call it “charge.” It’s the second $210 billion that we put into PPP.
They can contact my office to see if we can make inquiries on their behalf.
SBA just recently said they will start taking more applications for EIDL and that’s the Immediate Loan from SBA. That was one of the first loan amounts that got oversubscribed to the first round. We know that there are a lot more small businesses that need support and that’s why my hope is that when we do the next COVID bill, there will be more support for the small businesses.
And as it was in the first amount, $250 billion, we didn’t put any parameters around it. This is why the average size nationally of those loans was over $200,000. That’s not exactly what we would call small businesses in Hawaii.
In the second round of the $310 billion, we made sure that $50 billion of that was set aside for community lenders so that more small businesses would have access to these loans. The average amount of the second round of loans for Hawaii is more like $46,000, close to $47,000. Some 23,000 or so small businesses in Hawaii have obtained PPP loans altogether.
But the need is so great, the total amount of the funds for small businesses in Hawaii has been about $2.5 billion.
HFC: Businesses can apply for both EIDL and PPP under the CARES Act. However, those who applied for the maximum $10,000 loan only received $1,000. In addition, SBA will begin accepting new EIDL and EIDL Advance applications on a limited basis only to provide relief to U.S. agricultural businesses. What is the basis for giving only $1,000 instead of the full $10,000? Why is EIDL not open for all businesses who are suffering due to the pandemic?
HIRONO: Regarding the $1,000, that was not the intent. That’s how the EIDL amount was interpreted by SBA and we’re saying now we intended it to be $10,000, but I think they were trying to stretch the amount in this program so they made decisions based on the number of employees or whatever other factors they applied.
The amount should have been $10,000. The number of people who got those EIDL amounts increase but didn’t get the $10,000 we had intended so that’s one of the areas, I think we addressed in the second round of EIDL funds.
As far as people who are not qualified for, EIDL has specific requirements that if they met those requirements and they still didn’t get the money that is probably because the money had run out.
There were only certain amounts appropriated for all of these programs. Once that money was gone, this is why we had to pass the CARES Act 3 and 3.5. The Democrats are really concerned about doing more to help our workers and businesses. In fact, 1/3 of people in Hawaii are unemployed. We have one of the highest unemployment rates in the entire country.
We’re not gonna be able to just turn on a switch and everybody goes back to work. Some of those jobs are not gonna be there when they need to go back to work. We need to look at a lot more long-term support for workers. We’re gonna need to provide more sustainable support for small businesses.
But the Republicans aren’t exactly feeling much of a sense of urgency doing all those things. Fortunately, the House of Representatives is gonna pass tomorrow a 1,800-page bill that includes a lot more help for state and local governments in their budget shortfall, for some of the other areas that we need to be addressing as well.
That’s just the House and when the bill comes to the Senate, Mitch McConnell is not exactly eager to negotiate with us on what the House passes. So we’re gonna continue to push because the need is great.
HFC: Recently, you joined Sen. Blumenthal and 17 other senators to call for funding to support local journalists and media in future coronavirus relief packages. What is the status on this?
HIRONO: Democrats are very much focused on supporting journalists, local journalists. Although, I have to admit that for the bill that supports local journalism, there is a bipartisan bill. We sent a letter to the Office of Management and Budget to have the federal agencies increase advertising in local media.
I’ve called Senate leadership to put money in the next COVID package to support local journalism because you folks are providing much-needed service to get information out to the people.
One of the things that happened is that there is an extension to local broadcasters to qualify for PPP because if they are a part of a larger organization, like a parent organization, they were originally not able to qualify for PPP but they are now able to qualify for it.
But we’d like a lot more support for local journalism.
HFC: Community Health Centers in Hawaii received $10 million to support them during the pandemic. However, not-for-profit organizations didn’t get funding they need for medicine and laboratory testing. An example would be, Bayanihan Clinic Without Walls that serves the marginalized and underserved communities in Hawaii with free medical and dental services. Why is it that not-for-profit organizations serving the community are NOT part of the CARES Act funding?
HIRONO: Non-profits were able to access PPP, as far as I know. The economic impact of the pandemic was so broad that I know there were probably areas where we didn’t accurately meet the needs of the various groups. We try to be as responsive as possible but currently, not so. As far as I know, non-profits were able to access PPP funds. It doesn’t mean that that was easy because the first round of PPP funds ran out. This is why we had to put in another $310 billion. There might be specific kinds of concerns or questions some of the organizations you’re talking about has. They can contact my office and be specific with what their concerns are and I hope we will be able to help them.
HFC: As the state prepares to re-open some businesses during the pandemic, the community is still anxious about how it will affect the COVID-19 cases in Hawaii. What is your opinion on the reopening?
HIRONO: These re-openings should be done with the health and safety of the workers and the public in mind. Even if they open, we can’t just open the doors to everybody. They’re gonna be limitations on how many people can be in a particular shop. They’re different limitations that the state, as well as the counties, have required for businesses opening. Restaurants that are open should have limitations on the number of people who are in their dining room, etc.
The public is still concerned, especially those most vulnerable [such as] seniors and people with preexisting conditions. That’s a lot of people in Hawaii. A lot of people in Hawaii have respiratory conditions such as asthma, and those are conditions that make people vulnerable to this virus. We should be wearing masks, more to protect other people from whatever we may be carrying.
We still have to be very careful and cautious.
HFC: With the sudden shift of establishments to online services and distance-learning, you have advocated for boosting internet connectivity to provide and reach underserved communities. What are the steps you are taking to ensure that everyone is online-ready?
HIRONO: Well, that is a challenge. The Cares Act had some $43 million towards K-12, just for Hawaii. Part of that was used to enable the students to do distance-learning because five to 20% of the kids in our public schools don’t have adequate internet access. With that money, it should go for connectivity, internet access, iPads and all of that.
This is just another area where this pandemic has exposed huge disparities in healthcare, education and income. Going forward, we can’t just close our eyes to these kinds of disparities. There are rural areas that don’t have access to the internet. There are lots of people who don’t even use the internet. What we need to do is enable every child to be able to do distance-learning otherwise they are really going to fall behind.
I have signed on to quite a few bills that would provide billions of dollars to enable households to connect to the internet. To enable schools and libraries to connect to the internet. Both K-12 and higher education levels, all of those institutions to have connectivity [as well.]
I have been in support of those kinds of bills. It won’t only take billions of dollars for this to happen nationwide but this pandemic tells us that these are the areas that we need to address and move us to the point where there aren’t these kinds of disparity.
HFC: A few days ago, Trump had an exchange with an Asian-American female reporter during a White House press briefing. What is your opinion on what happened?
HIRONO: It shows his xenophobia in my view. Most people will look at that, except for Trump supporters, that he was showing his racism [and] his racist tendencies.
What’s happening is that there is an increase in racial crimes against Asian Americans. When you have a president that calls this a “Chinese Virus” or you have members of the administration calling it the “Kung Flu,” it creates an environment where people think they can attack Asians. And there have been verbal and physical attacks on Asians. I have called on the entire administration to condemn these kinds of racial attacks and to also have the Department of Justice prosecute these as race crimes.
HFC: Is there anything else you’d like to add that we didn’t talk about or discuss?
HIRONO: We know that a lot of people are really suffering. We have all kinds of people [who] are now going to the food bank. There are also a lot of people in our community in Hawaii coming forward to provide food, to do what they can to help and be generous to our neighbors. And really, to live aloha. I’m grateful to represent a state like that and I say, “we’re in this together.”
It’s not just the federal, local and state government going something. One of the major things that we can do is to take those steps like social distancing, wearing masks, and washing [our] hands. That’s all of our individual responsibility that we all need to take in order to fight this virus. I want to thank everybody: our first responders, our teachers, all of the people working in our supermarkets, gas stations. We’re learning who the true frontliners are. I just want to expand my thanks.
There are many members of the Filipino community who are providing care for people in our care facilities. They deserve our thanks.
Writer’s note: The interview transcription was edited for space and clarity.