California lawmakers head to Maui with lobbyists despite pandemic, travel warnings

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SACRAMENTO — The pandemic may have "canceled" 2020, but it did not derail an annual gathering of lobbyists and lawmakers on the shores of Maui that brought people from across the country to a luxury resort this week.

Roughly 100 people from four states converged at the Fairmont Kea Lani for a four-day legislative conference organized by the Independent Voter Project, said the group’s chair and executive director, Dan Howle.

The 18th annual event was a third of its regular size, Howle said, but it still drew nearly 20 lawmakers from California, Texas and Washington state. The theme? How to reopen states’ economies amid the public health crisis.

Howle said he was not concerned about the public health implications of bringing people from around the country together because of the stringent requirements in Hawaii’s mandatory Safe Travels program. To avoid a lengthy quarantine, visitors must provide proof of a negative Covid test taken within 72 hours of arrival.

"It really doesn’t matter where you’re coming from as long as you have a negative Covid test before you arrive here," he said.

But tests aren’t infalliable; they could provide the wrong result or fail to catch coronavirus during the incubation period. And there are risks to traveling because visitors could still face exposure on the island and bring the virus home.

The event comes amid a worrisome surge in infections across the country and new travel restrictions on the West Coast, and as many schools and businesses remain closed.

It also follows revelations by the San Francisco Chronicle that Gov. Gavin Newsom attended a 12-person birthday party at an exclusive Napa Valley restaurant, the French Laundry.

“Fair to say that the timing isn’t great," said Jack Pitney, a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College. "Anybody organizing an in-person event should think carefully about the optics, particularly in California, where the governor has just sent most of the state into purple. There’s a chance this will not be received well by the general public.”

Howle emphasized that there would be no cocktail hours or impromptu hotel bar hangouts and that guests would be instructed not to move from table to table at meals, adding that masks would be required at all times except when eating or drinking. The event received special permission from the county to convene a group larger than 12 people, he said.

He would not provide the names of any lawmakers in attendance, but the event often draws moderate Democrats. Assemblymembers Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove) and Blanca Rubio (D-Baldwin Park) attended last year, according to financial disclosures. Their offices did not respond to multiple queries Monday about whether they were in Hawaii this week.

Lobbying powerhouses Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and the Western States Petroleum Association sat out the conference this year. A spokesperson for Edison cited internal nonessential travel restrictions during the pandemic.

"Is it still on?" asked Kevin Slagle, from WSPA, before adding: "Nobody is going to Maui this year."

The conference is a fundraiser for the Independent Voter Project, the group behind the successful 2008 ballot measure that created a California’s nonpartisan primary. Howle also framed it as boon to the local economy and said it could prove that it’s possible to hold an event of that size safely.

"At some point in time, you have to figure out a way for people to get back to some semblance of a normal life," he said. "This is a good conference."

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