Eighteen days into 2022, Hawaii set a grim record of 6,252 coronavirus cases in one day. Now, the count is under 300. As predicted, the omicron surge peaked quickly, then plummeted.
Is the pandemic finally over? Dr. Anthony Fauci believes most of us can return to pre-pandemic life soon. (And yes, I will be relaxing more public health restrictions in the coming days and weeks.)
Fortunately, Maui County is well-positioned to prosper. Our unemployment rate went from a high of 35 percent in April 2020, to 13.4 percent by December 2020, then down to 6.3 percent last month. All credit goes to the people of this community who pulled together to support one another during the worst public health and economic crises of our lifetime.
We can go back to what was or we can strive for a better balance between human needs and financial pursuits.
Our hospitality industry will always be the county’s top economic driver. Yet the industry itself knows it must do better for our natural environment and distinctive lifestyle. We all encourage more thoughtful tourism while discouraging the kind of tourism we experienced last March.
The internet has dramatically changed tourism and not always in good ways. Booking websites have enabled residences to operate as neighborhood hotels instead of homes. Recently, Airbnb removed more than 1,300 Maui County listings from its website for not complying with our regulations. We are escalating this crackdown by finding and fining more lawbreakers.
Like Council Chair Alice Lee, I don’t agree with every suggestion in the County Council’s recent 400-page plan for managing tourism, but some of the ideas are sensible and achievable. However, I caution everyone about the consequences of doing too much, too soon. Stable prosperity will come from evolution, not revolution. Until our local economy is more diversified, we will remain financially dependent upon tourism.
That’s why my Office of Economic Development has been diligently working on economic diversification. The pandemic revealed our need for trained medical personnel, so again we are partnering with Hale Makua and the University of Hawaii Maui College to upgrade the skills, and income levels, of local health care workers. We are nurturing the creative economy by establishing an arts and cultural district in Wailuku town and certifying Maui residents to work for visiting film production companies. We are strengthening our agricultural sector to reduce our dependence on imported food. These changes will take time, but will help to buffer Maui County from future economic shocks.
Climate change, rising seas, wasteful use of resources and pollution are threatening the people and islands of Maui Nui. We’ve taken small steps by banning plastic bags, single-use plastics and chemical sunscreens. We can soon take bigger steps by upgrading to green infrastructure. Over the next five years, the Federal Infrastructure Bill will pump $66.5 million into our local economy. It will pay for highway improvements, including relocating sections of Honoapiilani Highway away from rising seas. We will electrify the Maui Bus fleet and build public charging stations for electric vehicles islandwide. With new water reclamation facilities, we can replace “wastewater” with recirculated treated water for agricultural irrigation. Our new “green infrastructure” will go a long way toward helping the environment while boosting our local economy and raising the standard of living for local residents.
Finally, the growing residential housing shortage extends far beyond Hawaii, but it’s a problem we can also mitigate with local action. Over the past three years, Maui County welcomed 364 affordable rentals and 574 new attainable units for purchase. Nearly 2,500 more affordable units for rent or purchase are in the pipeline. We are expediting these projects to relieve the current housing crunch and planning ahead by reassuming the government’s kuleana to build infrastructure and for developers to build residential housing.
By reducing our dependence on tourism, moving to greener infrastructure, diversifying our economy and building homes for residents of all income levels, Maui County will prosper in a post-pandemic world.
* “Our County,” a column from Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino, discusses county issues and activities of county government. The column alternates with “Council’s 3 Minutes” every other weekend. This week’s column is the last in a three-part series on Maui County’s response to the pandemic.