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Alexandria Niewijk Suthard was walking her dog in her Kahala neighborhood last week when she entered the local park to look at a new sign that had been posted. It said the area was closed because of COVID-19.
As she turned around to leave, a police car pulled up. A Honolulu police officer got out, told her she had broken the law for stepping off the sidewalk and into the park and issued her a criminal citation, Suthard said.
Though Suthard was alone in an empty park – not posing a high risk of COVID-19 spread, according to experts – she is now ordered to attend a remote court hearing. People found in violation are guilty of a misdemeanor, which is punishable by a $5,000 fine, up to a year in jail or both.
“I can’t believe it,” said Suthard, a disabled veteran. “This is incredibly stressful.”
Suthard got snagged in a set of restrictions approved by Mayor Kirk Caldwell and Gov. David Ige that experts say disregard the consensus of public health professionals: that outdoors is lower risk, and indoors is higher risk.
Oahu’s emergency order, effective through Sept. 16, flips health experts’ advice on its head.
Taxpayer-funded outdoor spaces – beaches, parks and hiking trails – are shut down. But indoor businesses including retail stores, restaurants, gyms, tattoo shops and massage parlors that provide more person-to-person contact and less ventilation are open, albeit with restrictions.
That’s despite the fact that the state has offered no evidence showing parks are driving COVID-19 spread. Hawaii’s Department of Health has identified COVID-19 clusters in gyms, restaurants and other indoor operations but Director Bruce Anderson couldn’t point to a single known cluster recently from a beach party.
The state’s own assessment of the COVID-19 situation in Hawaii highlights the risks of gyms and indoor gatherings but makes no mention of potential threats in parks or hiking trails. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the nation’s top health protection agency, recommends keeping green spaces open during the pandemic to protect the public’s physical and mental health.
“These bogus citations, which have nothing to do with the intent of the emergency order, cause individuals significant stress and confusion and animosity towards our leadership,” Suthard said.
Julia Marcus, an infectious disease epidemiologist and professor at Harvard Medical School, said she stared at a summary of Honolulu’s rules “in disbelief.” Indoor businesses can operate safely if proper procedures are followed, Marcus said, but it makes no sense to close public outdoor spaces.
“To me, this seems very misguided,” she said. “Based on what we know about superspreader events globally, they’re not happening at the beach. It’s not zero risk, but that’s not where most or even much transmission – if any – is happening.”
Caldwell has said he wanted to crack down on large gatherings at the island’s beach parks, and closing them down makes it easier to enforce.
“We’re trying to take a bright line on these things, and sometimes people don’t quite understand why, and we can understand that too,” he said at a recent press conference. “We believe holding this line is important to reduce the number of cases on Oahu.”
But his rules are likely driving people to gather indoors, Marcus said, which is riskier because it provides less ventilation to disperse viral particles.
Plus, there’s an equity issue, Marcus said. While free outdoor spaces are closed, open-air operations that require an entrance fee are open, including the city zoo, the Wet ‘n’ Wild Hawaii water park, the Aloha Stadium swap meet, golf courses, Kualoa Ranch and Waimea Valley.
“You’re depriving more economically disadvantaged people of outdoor space where they can recreate, socialize safely, exercise, enjoy their lives,” she said.
“We need to be thinking of this pandemic in a sustainable way, and shutting down outdoor spaces is not a sustainable or scientific approach and in some cases comes more from moral judgment about people gathering in ways that seem to be frivolous but in fact are probably quite low-risk.”
“When officials are overly heavy-handed in their public health restrictions and, worse, not evidence-based, people will lose trust.” — Harvard epidemiologist Julia Marcus
Nationwide, politicians and citizens have made a point of shaming people for having fun outdoors even if they are keeping their distance from non-household members, Marcus said.
Media outlets are to blame too, according to the University of North Carolina sociologist Zeynep Tufekci. In a weekslong Twitter thread, she has repeatedly pointed out that news organizations often illustrate their pandemic-related articles with photos of bikini-clad beachgoers even when outbreaks are actually happening in food processing plants and prisons. It amounts to misinformation, Tufekci wrote in The Atlantic.
“Enough with the beach-scolding!” she tweeted. “It’s a virus — not a moral agent geared to smite people who dare enjoy themselves. Six months in, we *know* most risk is indoors. More knowledge, less baseless outrage.”
The contradictions in Honolulu’s order have led some to question leaders’ rationale.
“I feel the decisions being made are more political and financial in nature than based on science,” said Andrew Grandinetti, a Hawaii epidemiologist who studies chronic diseases.
Caldwell declined to be interviewed for this story. But at a press conference last week, he vehemently defended his order and said he was protecting public health.
“We’re doing this for health reasons, to protect the health and safety of the people of Oahu,” he said. “To think that we’re taking action based on business reasons is so far left field.”
He reiterated that officials are trying to control “unregulated, large outdoor gatherings.”
“Where there’s gatherings outdoors, where there’s no regulation in place, we’ve shut those down to try to prevent further community spread,” he said.
But that explanation is baffling to residents who have been cited by Honolulu police officers. The department recently established a “COVID enforcement team” of 160 sworn police officers whose overtime is being paid by federal CARES Act funds.
In a single weekend this month, officers issued 1,350 citations, mostly to people allegedly lingering in closed parks or beaches. The department has also set up a phone number and email for residents to report others’ misbehavior.
“It’s a police state we’re living in subject to the rulemaking of one man,” Mililani resident Dana Lee wrote to Civil Beat.
Lee reported that a parks department employee recently called the police on her and her 5-year-old son for being in a public park, even though no one else was around. She just wanted him to get a little exercise, she said.
“The more the government tries to control normal human behavior in unjustifiable and confusing ways, the more panic and frustration they are injecting into the community,” she said.
Many people have wondered why HPD couldn’t just cite large groups that are not in compliance while keeping beaches and parks open for others.
With a strong communications campaign that clearly outlines what not to do, people should be able to enjoy the outdoors safely, said William Miller, an epidemiologist at Ohio State University’s College of Public Health.
“I would hope there would be a way, through communication and enforcement, to not restrict it for everywhere,” he said.
HPD Chief Susan Ballard was not available for an interview for this story, a department spokeswoman said.
Miller said he has a motto for assessing the risk of an activity: “Time, space, people, place – and remember your face.”
“Time” is the duration you’re with someone in close proximity. “Space” is maintaining 6 feet of distance. “People” means only interacting with your household or closed network. “Place” is choosing outdoor over indoor activities. And “face” is a reminder to wear a mask.
Honolulu’s order is inconsistent with that guidance, Miller said.
“The outdoors is one of our safer places to be, and my fear when you do such a strong lockdown is it tends to make people not follow through on some of the other things that are more important,” he said. “People will get frustrated and start having their own parties at their house, things that no one will be able to control. It can be a disincentive.”
It’s for exactly that reason that Oahu’s emergency order could backfire, according to Marcus. Beyond wasting resources on policing low-risk parks and beaches, which Marcus called a “distraction,” Honolulu also risks losing the thing it needs most of all.
“Trust is the foundation of an effective public health response,” she said. “When officials are overly heavy-handed in their public health restrictions and, worse, not evidence-based, people will lose trust.”
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