LIHUE, Kauai — Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami has imposed an islandwide overnight curfew that was scheduled to begin at 9 p.m. Friday, saying that, although Kauai County may be the first in the state to take such a radical step, the island’s size and isolation dictate that the restriction is a logical way to guarantee public safety.

The announcement was greeted positively on social media after Kawakami’s Wednesday afternoon announcement. But dozens of island residents took the opportunity to demand the county and the state do more to halt tourist arrivals, an action Kawakami has said he — like Gov. David Ige — has no power to take, though he supports the concept.

Kawakami’s action appeared to make Kauai the only county to resort to a curfew. Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said he had no plans to follow suit on Oahu — at least for the moment. Officials in Maui and Hawaii Counties did not respond to inquiries from Civil Beat about their plans.

Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami joint WAM Finance Meeting2.
Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami said the curfew is meant to relieve pressure on the county’s first responders. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

In an interview, Kawakami said that the continuing tourist influx has frustrated him enormously.

“This wasn’t an easy decision,” Kawakami said. “I’m willing to be criticized as overreacting. But this goes with the frustration with visitors continuing to come in. I’m very mindful that people are going to be losing their jobs, but if we don’t get a handle on this situation, we don’t get a chance to recover our economy.”

Kawakami said he is trying to avoid public anger against visitors “when our kupuna (elders) start falling ill, ending up in the hospital and potentially passing away.”

Kawakami said he had the idea of a curfew about a week before he made the announcement.

He called it a logical response in the state’s least-populated county because Kauai, which has only about 275 police officers and a smaller number of firefighters, is most exposed to catastrophic outcomes if the COVID-19 virus begins to sicken first responders.

“We already knew the police are understaffed and fire is going to be stretched thin and American Medical Response (the county’s contract ambulance system) is stretched thin,” Kawakami said, “and our health care system, day to day, is already nearing capacity.” Kauai’s three hospitals include only one trauma center — Wilcox Memorial Hospital — equipped to handle major emergencies.

“The first responders are our front line in the war on COVID-19,” he said, and “I have a responsibility to protect them. Kauai is vulnerable. Oftentimes, we’re left to take care of our own. We’re going to have to manage our resources and weather the storm.”

The curfew will be in effect daily from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., but there are exceptions for people who need to travel to or from work, transporting goods, accessing health care, caring for family members “and other activities that contribute to a productive society outside of these curfew hours.”

Kawakami said he is mindful that a curfew could interfere with the lives of many island residents, particularly people who rely on fishing and hunting to produce a significant proportion of their family food. There are also exemptions for government employees and people who work for essential public utilities.

Kawakami used a video address circulated on Facebook to make sure that tourists get the message. “Until further notice,” he said, “visitors should not be traveling to our island for recreational purposes. Marketing our island as a place to visit during this time … is unacceptable, insensitive and shows no regard to the health and safety of those who are most vulnerable.”

“The entire island, including the business community, needs to focus on the task at hand.” — Kauai Chamber of Commerce CEO Mark Perriello

Kauai Police Department Chief Todd Raybuck said that, although violation of the curfew is a misdemeanor punishable by as much as a year in jail or a $5,000 fine, officers have considerable discretion in enforcement.

“As with other misdemeanors, if someone commits a curfew violation, our police officers have the discretion to warn, cite or arrest,” Raybuck said. “At this time, KPD does not plan to implement any additional measures beyond regular patrol.

“What we are asking for is that the public voluntarily comply to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, especially to our most vulnerable citizens and our kupuna.”

Raybuck said everyone on island must remain inside their homes, vacation rentals or hotel rooms during curfew hours. Homeless residents should shelter in place, he said.

Kawakami’s proclamation drew praise from both County Prosecutor Justin Kollar and Mark Perriello, CEO of the Kauai Chamber of Commerce, who said his board supported the mayor’s decision. Kawakami said he reached out to the chamber because he realized some business owners might object to a curfew.

“The entire island, including the business community, needs to focus on the task at hand,” Perriello said. “While some businesses may fear the economic fallout of a curfew, the damaging impact of COVID-19 on Kauai’s economy is unavoidable at this point. There are no easy calls when it comes to this virus, but without intervention, this pandemic will hit Kauai and our economy much harder than it already has.”

Kollar said that “Mayor Kawakami made a very difficult and courageous decision and I support it. We need to act right now to minimize the number of people circulating in public spaces, and if this curfew succeeds in reducing the flow, we will know it is a success.”

On the county’s Facebook page, resident Kaleo Perez said: “Appreciate the care for all Kauai residents that the county administration is exercising, considering this curfew initiative. Thank you for the efforts to protect our residents.”

But Perez and others questioned the effectiveness of a curfew, considering much of Kauai shuts down by 9 p.m. anyway.

“This initiative helps and is a good start but there remains concern when the greater population is moving about during business hours,” he wrote.

Another Facebook poster, identified as John-Cynthia Seffing, complained, “You know this is all overreacting, really. It’s becoming a practice of martial law more than anything. None of this is really going to have an impact on control of a virus.”

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