California officials defend trip to Hawaii conference as 'urgent'

November 19, 2020 

California lawmakers are defending traveling to a luxury resort in Hawaii for a conference this week, as the country continues to struggle with a new wave of COVID-19 infections.

More than half a dozen politicians from the Golden State are attending the four-day conference, which began Monday, even after Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday warned against out-of-state travel and urged quarantining if anyone did so, the Los Angeles Times reported.

At least four GOP lawmakers -- Assembly members Jordan Cunningham, Heath Flora and Frank Bigelow and state Sen. Andreas Borgeas -- defended their tropical jaunt to the Fairmont Kea Lani in Maui as falling in line with their views of reopening the economy during the public health crisis, according to Politico.

"This event promotes intelligent public policy in our state," Cunningham told the site in a statement Wednesday afternoon. "In fact, we are here discussing ways we can safely reopen our society and save our small businesses, workers, and kids."

The annual conference, sponsored by the Independent Voter Project, features discussions on a variety of issues, including how states can safely reopen during the pandemic. It began the same day California reimposed some of the toughest restrictions in 40 counties, with Newsom saying the state was "experiencing the fastest increase in cases we have seen yet."

Flora and Bieglow issued similar statements to Cunningham's -- all but describing attending the conference as crucial.

"Participants are discussing how to safely reopen larger sectors of the economy and the discussion suddenly became more urgent with Newsom's announcement on Monday," Flora wrote. "Simply shutting down 95% of the state might've made sense back in April or May, but we understand so much more now than we did then. We're way (past) blanket solutions."

Heath FloraAP

Bigelow said, "The blanket response to Covid-19 does not work for small businesses, schools, and working families in Rural California. I am paying for myself to be here, following the strictest Covid-19 safety protocols, and tested negative to Covid-19 just prior to my arrival. I am taking my role as a Legislator during this pandemic very seriously and will continue to follow Covid-19 safety protocols once I return home."

In previous years, the event has drawn criticism because it's partly financed and attended by special interests that lobby lawmakers, the Times reported. Some of the attendees travel expenses are covered by the hosts and last year, legislators reported receiving about $3,500 each from the organizers to attend, the outlet said.

Some politicians refuse to confirm their attendance until they must report the travel expenses later on.

Lawmakers from Texas and Washington State are also in attendance. The conference includes non-legislative attendees.

California Democrats also confirmed they were in Maui, including Assembly members Blanca Rubio and Jose Medina.

Another Democrat, Wendy Carrillo, sent a tweet on Monday with a location stamp from Kihei, near the resort, then confirmed her participation on Wednesday. A hotel source told Politico that Assembly member Mike Gipson was also there.

Carrillo said she decided to attend the conference, which she described as "a test as to what is possible," to find answers in how to safely reopen the economy and schools.

Andreas Borgeas (right)AP

"If any of this created any mixed messages or caused confusion, let me apologize," she wrote to Politico.

Newsom is also facing backlash after photos emerged of him maskless at a Nov. 6 birthday party for his political advisor, which was also attended by doctors' association executives.

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