California lawmakers travel to Hawaii conference amid COVID-19 travel warnings

Legislators from California and other states are gathering for an annual conference in Maui this week despite a spike in COVID-19 cases in the Golden State that resulted in travel warnings by health officials.

a group of people sitting at a table using a laptop: Some state lawmakers are attending a conference in Maui despite California issuing travel warnings amid a spike in COVID-19 cases. Above, the state Assembly last year. (Robert Gourley / Los Angeles Times)

© (Robert Gourley / Los Angeles Times)
Some state lawmakers are attending a conference in Maui despite California issuing travel warnings amid a spike in COVID-19 cases. Above, the state Assembly last year. (Robert Gourley / Los Angeles Times)

More than a half dozen California lawmakers are among the 50 people attending a policy conference sponsored by the Independent Voter Project, a nonprofit group, at the Fairmont Kea Lani Hotel in Wailea, with some legislators’ travel expenses picked up by the hosts. The four-day conference, at which panels discuss various issues affecting states, began Monday.

The annual gathering, which has seen up to 25 California lawmakers in attendance in past years, has faced criticism because it is partially financed and attended by special interests including businesses and labor groups, which lobby legislators.

This year, lawmakers are drawing criticism for their decision to attend the event during the COVID-19 pandemic and as coronavirus cases surge nationwide.

The conference began on the same day that California public officials moved many counties back to the purple reopening tier, reimplementing the state’s toughest restrictions for public gatherings and business operations to stem the transmission of the virus.

“We are seeing community spread broadly now throughout the state of California,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday.

On Friday, Newsom urged Californians to not travel out of state and to quarantine if they do.

Dan Howle, the chairman of the Independent Voter Project, declined Monday to identify which members of the Legislature were attending the four-day event or to disclose how many are scheduled to fly to Hawaii, saying only that “multiple members are attending from multiple states” including California.

“IVP decided to move forward based on the Hawaii Safe Travel program and agreement from the hotel to provide adequate social distancing spacing for seating at all meetings,” Howle said in an email. “Based on that [program] and conversations with the hotel regarding guest safety we decided we could have a safe and secure event.”

Under Hawaii’s Safe Travel Program, which was established on Oct. 15, those attending the conference must provide Hawaii government health officials and the hotel proof of negative COVID-19 test taken less than 72 hours from arrival in Hawaii, Howle said.

He said masks and social distancing are required at all meetings and events, and the conference received the approval from Maui County required for meetings larger than 12 people.

The lawmakers’ decision to fly out of state for the conference drew criticism from Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn.

“This is ‘do as I say, not as I do,’” Coupal said. “This is one of the reasons there is a complete disconnect between ordinary citizens in California and the political leadership.”

Representatives for some legislators confirmed Monday that the lawmakers they work for are not attending, but others did not respond to a request for comment from The Times.

The annual conference has in the past included panel discussions on issues including prisons, biofuel, pollution and transportation. Last year, lawmakers reported receiving about $2,600 each from the event organizers for expenses to attend.

State ethics laws allow legislators to have travel expenses provided by groups if they are speakers at events away from the state.

The ongoing threat of COVID-19 has been an issue for the California Legislature, where outbreaks among members forced cancellation of a portion of this year’s session, and led to measures including casting votes remotely from district offices.

At least three California state lawmakers have tested positive in recent months, while others have had to go into quarantine after they came into contact with people who had the virus.

Newsom is also facing criticism for recently attending a birthday party at a Napa Valley restaurant with people from other households. The governor apologized Monday, saying his behavior contradicted the spirit of the state safety guidelines.

He said he is weighing whether to issue a statewide curfew as public health experts urge a reduction in travel.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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