Mayor a national celebrity | The Garden Island

LIHU‘E — After strategizing through the day at the Kaua‘i Emergency Management Agency Emergency Operations Center with a team of experts, usually about 15-strong, Mayor Derek Kawakami goes home to his family.

Then, he blows off steam making another installment of “Stay Home Kaua‘i,” a series of small, social-media videos aimed at “breaking up the boredom” and filmed by Kawakami’s wife, Monica Kawakami.

In the videos, which usually last about five minutes, Mayor Kawakami demonstrates how to make no-bake cereal crunch bites and gives mask-making a try, defies gravity with dining-room-table tricks, and shows the secret behind a unique backyard project called “bubble snake.”

Free-spirited, sometimes silly and peppered with jokes, the videos have recently become the subject of national news.

Kawakami told The Garden Island in a Sunday phone interview that the main point is to lift spirits and inspire people to get creative during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There’s enough negativity and fear going around, and that’s not what people need right now,” he said. The purpose of “Stay Home Kaua‘i” is “to be a beacon of hope.”

The videos started as a bit of a honey-do project — Monica Kawakami is a sixth-grade teacher who was looking for ways to navigate the shifting environment of the virtual-education system. The idea for the videos sparked when the couple was brainstorming ways to keep kids engaged and occupy their time.

“It grew out of a genuine concern for how children are dealing with this complicated situation and how we can connect with them,” Mayor Kawakami said. “It started with a handful of crafts and activities. Early on, we found out parents were also tuning in and found it a way to deal with the situation.”

Associated Press quoted social-media responses to “Stay Home Kaua‘i” on Saturday, showing an outpouring of approval from the community.

“Our Mayor is bettah than yours!!” one woman commented, responding to Kawakami’s stiff-but-earnest version of the Renegade dance to the rap song “Lottery,” one of the most popular dances on social media.

“I LOVE all your postings!” a woman commented on a video. “So fun, so caring, so empathetic, and a blessing to us all, even us who live on O‘ahu!!!”

Kaua‘i resident Michael Miranda said the videos show a human side to the mayor. “On the policy side, I appreciate all the hard decisions he’s been making,” Miranda said.

Miranda told Associated Press Kawakami seemed to be “a couple steps ahead” of Hawai‘i’s other counties — discouraging tourists from visiting Kaua‘i, even before a statewide, 14-day quarantine for travelers arriving in Hawai‘i went into effect.

Kawakami said the videos have given him perspective on a personal level as well. Even holding the position of mayor, Kawakami is more inclined to fly below the radar, he said. He made the choice to show a different side of himself in the videos — one this is less reminiscent of a starched-collared government leader.

“I started off being myself and people responded. They understood it,” he said. “It’s OK for you to feel comfortable in your own skin, and whatever which way you are, you’re perfectly fine.”

Back at the EOC

While “Stay Home Kaua‘i” is going viral, Kawakami says the primary focus is still the county’s response to COVID-19, including plans to lift some restrictions and allow the local economy to start recovering.

Teams of people are working together on strategies for both short-term relief and long-term economic recovery, with a “strong strategy to restart the local economy in a staged, responsible way,” he said.

“We’re looking at May 3 as that date,” Kawakami said. That date is two incubation periods of the virus from the last identified case of community spread on Kaua‘i.

Those models are subject to change as the situation does, and hinge on the cooperation of the Kaua‘i community. Kawakami pointed out that Kaua‘i, while it has an advantage of being a remote island in the Pacific, is also vulnerable by the same token.

“We only have the health-care numbers that we have, and when you have a pandemic where every large city (is affected), we can’t count on the guarantee of outside assistance,” Kawakami said. “We’re especially vulnerable. We have to take care of this fragile island.”

He emphasized personal responsibility, saying the real front line of defense against the spread of COVID-19 is the individual “not doing anything that could potentially get us sick.”

That will be the key to restarting the economy, Kawakami said. Individuals need to keep their guard up and continue to practice social distancing and mask-wearing once they start going back to work.

“It requires self-governance,” he said. “When the public lets down their guard, that’s when we see the greatest risk to the community at large.”


Jessica Else, editor-in-chief, can be reached at 245-0457 or The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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