Whales and dolphins playing closer to shore. Hanauma Bay at rest. If there is any silver lining to be found in this pandemic, it’s that our natural resources are being given a chance to recover from overuse.

But with this news comes a stream of photos in my social media feeds of empty beaches and trails with captions like, “Wow, no crowds in Waikiki!”

This needs to stop — at least for now.

We have been collectively lucky health-wise so far with some of the lowest death and infection rates in the nation. That could all change with the arrival of just one irresponsible virus-carrying tourist.

Like Australia and New Zealand, we are in a potentially special situation: an isolated land mass that has stamped out transmission of the virus (fingers crossed). But unlike those two countries, it’s trickier for us to create our own rules about visitors (banning recreational air travel would fall under federal jurisdiction).

Waikiki Beach empty. 2020
Waikiki Beach on March 17. Images of a tourist-free Hawaii are having unfortunate consequences. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Over 5,000 visitors have arrived in Hawaii since Governor Ige mandated a 14-day self-quarantine for arrivals to the state — we should expect more will come if they feel that Hawaii is open-for-business, regardless of what our state government officials tell people.

And all these seemingly innocuous social media photos of Hawaii’s natural resources are like individual ads encouraging tourists to travel here. I see it in the comments after these kind of posts from mainland folks wondering if it’s time to book their trip.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority has done a good job in putting out the word that Hawaii is closed; now it’s our turn to say — and show — that too.

Social media suffers from the tragedy of the commons in that we all pay when someone decides to publish a photo of shared spaces, but only the person doing the posting benefits. More simply: when you are trying to boost your follower count by posting idyllic photos of empty Hawaii, which in turn attracts more tourists, it is more crowded and overrun for all of us.

That can be problematic during normal times. Now it’s a matter of life and death.

This type of forbidden empty beach posts (and yes, Instagram stories, TikTok, and Snapchat count, too) are catnip for the type of rule-bending tourist who sees the closure of the Haiku Stairs as a challenge, not a deterrent. And coupled with cheap air fares and beachfront vacation rental homes that are advertising “quarantine dream” style housing, we are inviting a rush of this type of no-rules visitor.

(Just yesterday I got a text from friends who were horrified that an international acquaintance had rented a house here for two months and was ready “to party.” Yikes.)

You might feel young, healthy, and confident in your immune system, and in that case, I’m happy for you — truly.

But we live among elderly and immunocompromised folks, some of whom are working essential jobs and can’t stay home. And there’s evidence that segments of our population might be at greater risk to developing complications from COVID-19.

It’s hard: the outdoor world is so much a part of many of our lives and identities. To share a picture of the beach, a wave, or a hike is an expression of joy and appreciation for a life well-lived, the “Lucky We Live Hawaii” sentiment.

But this isn’t a request to not go outside. We should surf, hike, and go for beach walks if we can respect the distancing rules and stay within the boundaries mandated by our officials — but maybe we don’t need to share a picture on social media?

No Shame

I want to stress that this isn’t meant to shame anyone; for a lot of us, it’s a reflexive thing to want to share what makes Hawaii — and therefore our own lives — special. I’ve definitely done this myself!

And for some of us, it’s a business — a pretty social media feed of Hawaii life can make a lot of money. And at a time in which jobs and ways to make an income are scarce, I am sympathetic.

It’s tricky for Hawaii to create rules about visitors.

In an ideal world, we’d have a roadmap for how to effectively limit tourism now and a game plan for adequate testing, tracing, and enforcing quarantines. But until we have that, it’s time to be creative.

If you’re going to post, maybe share pictures of the people in our community who are helping our neighbors or promote the restaurants and small businesses that need our help?

Or share pictures of your kids, your lunch, your backyard, and your baking projects? If you feel you have to share nature photos, maybe tell a story about your past adventures?

I know I’d feel safer for now and I hope you would too.

And I’ll be looking forward to seeing all of your tourist-free COVID-19 era photos after this is all over.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a current photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.org. The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

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