A group of Hawaii residents has taken on the role of enforcers of the state’s COVID-19 travel quarantine, scouring social media and fielding tips to track down visitors ignoring the requirement to isolate for 14 days after arrival.
Take the case of 20-year-old Artyon Zhiryada and 19-year-old Dan Vlasenko, who posted a video of Zhiryada shooting a feral chicken with a spear gun. They were arrested May 22 after Hawaii citizens found their video, tracked their social media accounts, discovered their location and reported them to special agents.
“We were the ones that actually found their location,” said Angela Keen, a former TV news reporter and administrator of the Hawaii Quarantine Kapu Breakers, the community group that helped state investigators find Zhiryada and Vlasenko. “They were all over social media.”
The group has also reported others they saw as rule-breakers, most of whom were visitors, connecting the dots and bridging gaps in enforcement of the emergency rules, Keen said. In about a dozen cases, the group’s efforts have led to investigations and arrests.
Law enforcement officials, including Hawaii Attorney General Clare Connors, say the community and social media are playing an important role in enforcement of COVID-19 stay-at-home and quarantine orders.
“We appreciate the assistance of local people who spot flagrant violations of our emergency rules on various social media sites and report them to the appropriate authorities,” Connors said in a May 15 news release.
Keen said the group has faced criticism for being against tourism, but that’s not the point.
“It really all boils down to keeping Hawaii safe, keeping my neighbors safe, keeping my colleagues safe,” she said. “We’ve managed to have the lowest rates for a reason and we want to keep it that way. We want visitors to come back when it’s safe to come back.”
Hawaii has been under a statewide stay-at-home order since March 23 and enacted a 14-day quarantine requirement for visitors March 26. As of Saturday, there have been 651 cases of COVID-19, a relatively small number compared with the rest of the United States.
Although the number of visitors flying into the state has drastically decreased, it hasn’t completely stopped: more than 12,000 have come since March 26. That’s an average of about 188 visitors a day, although on some days in April, fewer than 100 arrived.
State legislators and community members worried that some visitors were not following quarantine requirements and state authorities were failing to catch them. The Senate Special Committee on COVID-19 pointed out last month that airport officials needed to keep better track of arrivals.
“If you can’t catch them, you can’t catch them,” Sen. Donna Mercado Kim said at the April 30 hearing. “But a lot of these people are blatantly violating (the quarantine).”
Keen said there were many gaps in the state’s process, which is why the community felt the need to step in.
“The dots were not connecting,” she said.
That was evident in the case of Aarona Lopez, a homeless YouTube comedian who flew from Los Angeles to Oahu in April and went straight to an encampment in Waimanalo.
“Knowing she was coming from L.A., which at that time was a hot spot, and knowing she was immediately out in the community, I saw it as a risk,” Keen said.
Lopez had reportedly listed a post office box as her quarantine address. Kapu Breakers tracked her on social media such as Facebook Live and fielded tips from eyes on the ground, Keen said.
Lopez was eventually sent back to California.
The group’s volunteers come from a variety of occupations, including hospitality workers, airline staff, attorneys and executives.
Most importantly, she said, they try to make sure they have their facts before calling anyone out.
The group does not encourage members to take matters into their own hands, but instead sends its cases to authorities.
“We want to be pono and we want to protect our community and that’s the main thing,” she said. “I’d rather that we have a healthy community and healthy Hawaii than to have folks here at the wrong time. If they love Hawaii and they know they’re putting people at risk … they wouldn’t come here.”
Honolulu Police Department Deputy Chief John McCarthy says visitors haven’t been a particular concern.
“When you think about it, the majority of the people who are flying are local residents,” he said. Returning residents comprised the largest percentage of arrivals between March 26 and May 28, according to Hawaii Tourism Authority data.
The challenge in enforcing stay-at-home or quarantine violations, he said, was figuring out the limits of police practices.
“You can’t be stopping people randomly,” he said. “It’s just bad practice, bad law enforcement.”
He added, “Our focus from the very beginning was to gain compliance, not to do enforcement. We still have got to uphold the Constitution as well.”
Social media has definitely played a role in enforcing emergency rules, McCarthy said, with some people “giving themselves away” by posting their acts online.
“You’re basically handing me the evidence,” he said.
On Kauai, the community has played a big role in enforcing rules.
Todd Raybuck, the Kauai police chief, said calls for service have gone up significantly since the pandemic began. In April, Kauai police received 2,816 calls related to COVID-19.
“The community has been very active in notifying the police department about perceived or actual violations,” he said. “What we’ve always wanted is for the community as a whole, including any tourists that come, to be self-compliant.”
The success on Kauai in preventing a wider spread of the virus is a testament to the cooperation of the community, he said.
“I’m just grateful that we are on that path to return to whatever the new normal is,” he said.
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