California Officials Continue Hawaii Conferene Despite COVID-19 Surge

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California officials traveled to Hawaii to join the annual press conference held in Kahakuloa Headland, Maui, to discuss different policies and interact with corporate sponsors for five days as the coronavirus pandemic rages on.

Every November, the Independent Voter Project hosts the conference and has been doing so for more than ten years. This week, the gathering is held at the Fairmont Kea Lani on the southwestern shore of Maui.

The chairman and executive director of the Independent Voter Project, Dan Howle, said during a phone interview that someone had to make sure that they could gather as a group safely amid the COVID-19 crisis.

This year, the event is much smaller, which is only about one-third of its usual size, due to the threat of the virus. Organizers prepared about 50 rooms at the Fairmont to house about 120 people that would be staying for five days. The attendees include several lawmakers from different states, including California, Texas, and Washington.

Howle said that the Independent Voter Project shouldered the $550 airfare for the officials and paid for their stay at the hotel, costing about $600 or more per night.

The chairman did not reveal the identities of the lawmakers present at the gathering but noted that less than 20 politicians from the three states were there. The other attendees consist of legislators’ spouses and family members. Representatives from businesses and trade groups that contributed thousands of dollars were also invited to the conference.

The Independent Voter Project was founded in 2006 and is a nonprofit organization that aims to empower nonpartisan voters while promoting a new approach to governing. The organization was responsible for the 2010 ballot initiative that established California’s second-best primary system.

Corporate donors, including AT&T, Eli Lilly and Co., Pepsico, Walmart, and the Western States Petroleum Association, all fund the Independent Voter Project. However, it is best known in Sacramento for bringing dozens of lawmakers to Maui by spending several thousands of dollars.

Several critics have argued that the conference is an example of the relaxed relationship between lawmakers and special interests. They said that the attending officials participate in policy panels in the morning and then spend the rest of the day unwinding and touring around the island. Howle argued that the conference was a perfect opportunity for politicians to discuss sensitive matters in a calming environment, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

People are now criticizing lawmakers for moving forward with the conference despite the threat of the coronavirus pandemic. Organizers held the event on the same day that California officials moved back several counties back to the most restrictive COVID-19 lockdown protocol, purple-tier.

The restrictions banned the majority of public gatherings and closed down several business establishments while also urging people to stay indoors and avoid non-essential travels to reduce the number of positive cases.

On Monday, California Governor Gavin Newsom said that the region has been seeing a massive surge of infections. He told residents on Friday to avoid traveling out of the state and to self-quarantine themselves for 14 days after they return if they do.

In an email, Howle said that the Independent Voter Project decided to hold the conference under the Hawaii Safe Travel program. They also coordinated with the hotel to maintain proper social distancing protocols at all times during the event. 

Hawaii’s Safe Travel Program was first established on October 15 as a response to the coronavirus pandemic. Under the policy, attendees at the conference must give Hawaii government health officials and hotel management proof that they have been tested negative for the COVID-19 virus in the last 72 hours from their arrival in Hawaii, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Danielle Joyce Ong

Danielle is a local journalist with a passion for exploring stories related to crime and politics. When Danielle isn't busy writing or reading, she is usually exploring the great outdoors and all the hiking trails in the Bay.