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Hawaii Legislature goes into recess to prevent virus spread

March 17, 2020 GMT
House Speaker Scott Saiki, at podium in center, speaks to reporters while flanked by representatives and senators at the Hawaii State Capitol on Monday, March 16, 2020. Hawaii lawmakers are indefinitely suspending the current state legislative session to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus. (AP Photo/Audrey McAvoy)
House Speaker Scott Saiki, at podium in center, speaks to reporters while flanked by representatives and senators at the Hawaii State Capitol on Monday, March 16, 2020. Hawaii lawmakers are indefinitely suspending the current state legislative session to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus. (AP Photo/Audrey McAvoy)

HONOLULU (AP) — Hawaii lawmakers on Monday voted to indefinitely suspend the current legislative session to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

The announcement came as Honolulu reported Hawaii’s first case of an individual testing positive for the disease without having traveled out of state.

The House and Senate both voted for resolutions calling for a recess effective Tuesday after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines to restrict gatherings of more than 50 people for the next eight weeks.

The resolution calls for House Speaker Scott Saiki and Senate President Ron Kouchi to issue a declaration to reconvene “at the appropriate time.”

“This is an unprecedented situation. We are having to monitor events not by the day but practically by the hour,” Saiki told reporters at a news conference.

All bills have been suspended, and public hearings and large group meetings have been cancelled, Saiki said. Lawmakers’ offices will remain open during the recess, however, and members will continue to be at the Legislature. Leaders will work on protocols to ensure the safety of members and their staff, Saiki said.

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Saiki noted members of the public feel the need to attend hearings as bills move through the legislative process. Lawmakers didn’t want people to have to compromise their safety by attending, he said.

“This decision is a preventative one. It is meant to protect the health and safety not just of those who work in this building but especially for the members of the public who need to deal with the Legislature,” Saiki said.

Hawaii operates on a two-year budget, which lawmakers passed last year. Lawmakers have been considering passing a supplemental budget. But Saiki said technically, lawmakers don’t need to approve a new budget this year.

Bills that would fund new collective bargaining agreements are on hold, however.

Saiki said lawmakers would like to see the state start taking temperatures of passengers at the airport. But otherwise he and Kouchi withheld criticism and stressed cooperation with other branches of government.

“At this time we need to all work together,” Kouchi said. “I offer no negative comments about the governor and continue to extend my hand to let him know anything that I can do — anything that the speaker can do, the Senate and House, to work with him to protect our citizens — we stand ready to do.”

Gov. David Ige issued an supplementary emergency proclamation waiving the one-week waiting period for those signing up to receive unemployment benefits. He said would use his emergency powers to waive sunshine laws governing meetings to allow for remote communication.

Ten people in Hawaii have tested positive for COVID-19, including the cases of two Oahu residents and a Maui visitor announced Monday.

Hawaii Department of Health Director Bruce Anderson said the Oahu residents included one who traveled to Las Vegas and another who worked as a tour guide at Kualoa Ranch. The tour guide was likely exposed to travelers from communities where the virus is spreading, Anderson said. Three members of the tour guide’s large 12-person household have developed symptoms and were being tested for the disease.

Anderson said he didn’t think this was an instance of widespread community transmission since there’s no evidence it has moved beyond this family. But he said such cases will become more frequent, so it’s important that people practice social distancing and take other steps to prevent the virus’ spread.

The state’s goal is to reduce the number of cases so the state’s health care system is able to manage them, Anderson said.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell announced events with more than 50 people at city facilities would be canceled through at least the end of April, including concerts, Easter egg hunts and swim meets. Beach and other outdoor parks will remain open.

Caldwell also said he would make an empty city building available for the care of homeless individuals who have contracted the virus but he asked that the state Department of Health operate the facility.

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Associated Press journalist Caleb Jones contributed to this report.