A week ago, on the east side of Oahu, Troy Kane spent the day in waist-high water lugging rocks across Pā Honu fishpond. Usually he’d go with a group, but because of social distancing orders, he ventured out alone.
Kane and other local residents volunteer to help restore coastal walls and fish ponds, or loko iʻa kuapā, to reintroduce native seaweed and pua (baby fish) into the bay.
Resting against the slick black rocks, he looked north toward Sherwood Beach. Usually dotted with local residents, the beach was fuller than Kane expected.
“Locals are following the orders, staying home. But there are people, who are clearly tourists, here by the dozens,” said Kane. “They’re still out here, still in groups of seven or more, still coming, and that’s a problem.”
Hundreds of travelers, motivated in part by $100 airfares, are still crossing the Pacific to ride out the pandemic in Hawaii. Last week alone, more than 800 non-residents flew there. Meanwhile, locals and some legislators are growing increasingly frustrated. They assume the statewide mandatory self-quarantine order – two weeks for out-of-state visitors and inter-island travelers – isn’t being followed. They also anticipate that disregard by travelers will result in more Covid-positive cases in Hawaii, stressing an already ill-equipped healthcare system.
Hawaii just confirmed its 580th Covid-19 case and 10th death. To date, 35 non-residents have tested positive for Covid in Hawaii. On Saturday, Hawaii governor Ige closed all beaches, though water activities are still allowed.
For Kane, 34, a Waimanalo neighborhood board member and community representative, he has seen travelers at the grocery stores or gas stations in Kailua or Kaneohe, tourist hotspots and towns with high rates of coronavirus cases. He says he worries for his family and community, many of whom have underlying health conditions – Native Hawaiians and Micronesians suffer disproportionately from poor access to healthcare and chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. Almost all of Kane’s family members are still reporting to food-service jobs around the island and several are pregnant.
“People will always see this place as their playground. And in this moment, as a Native Hawaiian, this is very reflective of many historical circumstances, where people from outside of the islands have come in and caused real harm to the native population. It’s not always with direct intent to do so, but the impacts, especially on Hawaiian people, are very real,” he said.
“If you take our history, it tells us that we are not very well protected.”
On Oahu and the outer islands, tensions are high. Protesters have shouted and taken pictures of incoming travelers who have their temperatures taken upon arrival and sign contracts agreeing to adhere to the quarantine order. Outside a Maui airport, some travelers raised their middle fingers as they passed by Bryan Berkowitz, a Maui resident who co-moderates the Facebook group Maui Covid-19 Facts.
“It’s beyond frustrating,” said Josh Masslon, a Maui-based ICU nurse. “We cannot handle an outbreak with our resident population alone.”
Masslon added that he has called law enforcement several times when he’s seen rental cars parked at beaches with groups of people on the sand.
Debates on Facebook and Instagram between incoming travelers and islanders go on daily. Several travelers wrote “See you soon” and “We only care about our opinions.” In late March, one family of four from Illinois was assaulted and the tires on their rental car were slashed in Waikiki.
Oahu locals have been relishing in the spectacle of an empty Waikiki. “It’s our Times Square and it’s silent,” said Mollie Bruhl, a resident of Honolulu suburb Kalihi. She’s been venturing to Waikiki to surf almost daily, which is still allowed, but beaches are being patrolled on foot and by drone by law enforcement. Every so often, a voice rings out from the drone: Aloha. The stay-at-home order is in effect. Please do not gather or sit on the beach. Water activities are permitted, but please leave immediately after.
In an effort to gauge intentions of non-locals, other residents who’ve been surfing in Waikiki said they’ve talked to travelers out on the water who claimed they were coming to the islands for an extended stay upon arriving at the airport.
“People from Hawaii have always had this underlying tension with people coming in,” said Bruhl. “People here see themselves as a collective considering the whole rather than ‘I’. Now we feel like we’re trying to protect ourselves.”
On 1 April, Governor Ige established a mandatory two-week self-quarantine for out-of-state visitors and inter-island travelers. Visitors must tell the state where they’re staying and they cannot list vacation rentals as their lodging. Violators face fines or prison time; two individuals on Kauai have been arrested so far. The state also instituted a program that is financing return flights for travelers who arrive without accommodations.
The state is supposed to be following up with tourists on their whereabouts, but limited resources make it difficult to keep tabs on thousands of new arrivals. “The only thing we’re doing is notifying the hotels, and hotel staff check,” state Adjutant General Kenneth Hara told a special legislative committee last week. I spoke with eight individuals who arrived in Hawaii from four US cities in the last week and none have received a follow-up call.
The mayors of Honolulu, Kauai and Maui County asked the White House to stop all non-essential travel to Hawaii. Governor Ige rebuked the request, saying it would be up to the airlines and they could not discriminate among essential and non-essential passengers.
“I don’t believe it’s a situation where the majority of those who are ordered to quarantine are not obeying,” Ige said. “But we are continuing to look at improving the system as we go.”
Other representatives have called for stricter responses, similar to that of New Zealand, while hundreds of residents signed a petition demanding shuttered hotels be used to isolate all travelers.
Kane has been volunteering with organizations and local chefs to help source and deliver products and meals to multi-family homes and the elderly in Waimānalo.
“The state has failed to protect many, in the people’s eyes, locally,” said Kane. “It took too long to mandate closures, and the communities that would be hardest hit weren’t taken into consideration.”
He expects little change from the state as he looks ahead to when the islands open up again, and the number of non-residents arriving daily could surpass 30,000.
Every few days, he ventures back to the fish pond on Waimanalo Bay alone. There, he’s reminded that change and survival is its own tradition among his communities. This moment in particular rings of how change can be total and inconclusive and instantaneous.
“But we’re living this one together, like always,” he said.