On a recent hot and sticky afternoon, Shoji Takemura brought his family to Ala Moana Center, where shops are shuttered for a second time this year to comply with the latest government order intended to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
The only open businesses are a smattering of restaurants, convenience stores, food kiosks and retailers that sell essential goods.
None of that mattered to Takemura and his wife, who weren’t at the mall to go shopping at all.
They were there for the mall’s shaded, open-air corridors. With access to parks, beaches, hiking trails and community gardens prohibited but for solo use, the Honolulu high rise dwellers were desperate for a place to stretch their legs, breathe fresh air and let their 22-month-old daughter run around.
Takemura said the family’s apartment building has some common outdoor space, but all of the parents and their children abandoned it after the building instituted a mandatory mask-wearing policy.
As a result, it’s been months since his daughter has interacted with another kid, he said.
“This kind of baby needs to play outside,” Takemura said of his daughter. “My concern is when these kids grow up I think that maybe they will be a little bit different because they are short on the experience of playing with other kids.”
Lack of access to outdoor public spaces under Oahu’s current COVID-19 restrictions is yet another dividing line between the haves and have nots on an island rife with socioeconomic disparity.
Starting Thursday, Oahu residents can walk, run, sit and fish in the island’s outdoor spaces and visit community gardens and botanical gardens. But “only by oneself,” the order states. No group activities are allowed, not even for members of the same household.
During the prior two weeks, the island was under a stricter set of restrictions that prohibited all access to parks and beaches — no exceptions.
The loosening of the rules, however, does not benefit families with young children who require supervision. And it’s especially harsh on residents who don’t have the luxury of a backyard swimming pool, yard or home gym.
Although nearly everyone on Oahu is feeling suffocated to some degree by the restrictions on taxpayer-funded outdoor spaces, the rules are toughest on low-income families, especially those who live in overcrowded households or urban apartments.
“This crackdown is really hurting people of limited means who are crowded into their apartments and houses and have no other alternative,” said Meg Walker, an architect and senior advisor at Project for Public Spaces in New York, who is studying public space access across the U.S. during the pandemic.
“When you think about people who have second homes in Hawaii that might be empty and yet there are all these other folks who don’t have those second homes and who don’t have beach houses with big yards, there’s such inequity,” she said. “It’s really hurting people who need to be able to get out the most.”
As the island enters the third week of a stay-at-home order, many Oahu residents say they are reaching their wits’ end.
“It’s miserable,” said 9-year-old Arihanna Scondras of Kaneohe. “All I do is sit inside and watch TV and go to school online.”
The girl’s father was flummoxed by Thursday’s reopening of beaches for solitary activity only.
“What should we do, take turns?” said Dave Scondras, a construction worker who also has an 8-year-old son. “Sit in the car and let them out to go to the beach one at a time — even though they live together and play together all day in the same room?”
Earlier in the pandemic, Takemura said a mall security guard kicked him and his family out of Ala Moana Center for loitering as they stood watching their daughter take wobbly, uncertain steps on a patch of artificial grass.
Now when the family goes to the mall to escape the confines of their apartment, they just walk, which is permitted. They don’t let their daughter stop to play around at all, Takemura said.
Takemura said he respects the government’s COVID-19 restrictions and understands why they’re needed. So he tries to provide his daughter with glimmers of a normal childhood without breaking the rules.
Trips to the mall afford the possibility that his daughter might encounter another tyke stomping about. Even if she can’t actively play with other children, Takemura said he wants his daughter to at least have a chance to see other kids her age.
Elsewhere in the U.S., there’s a trend toward expanding and creating new open spaces in response to the public health risks of the pandemic, according to Walker, who is also an adjunct professor at Pratt Institute, where she teaches graduate students about urban placemaking and management.
The result of these efforts, Walker said, is that some cities have more outdoor public space available than ever before. And since the risk of coronavirus transmission is lower outside, especially when people abide by social distancing guidelines, Walker said she views this as a critically positive trend.
To keep users safe, however, public space managers have to work hard to try to guide and control public use of gathering places, Walker said.
Some municipalities are narrowing city streets to make room for people to practice social distancing on sidewalks. Other open space managers are limiting the number of people who can enter into a park at one time or hiring more people to enforce mask-wearing and group size limits. Artists are being enlisted to create humorous chalk drawings that remind park users to keep 6 feet apart in a way that’s creative and engaging.
On an August cross-country tour of public outdoor spaces, Walker said she did not come across any shuttered public parks, not even in states where coronavirus infection rates are increasing.
“There are ways to address it so that you don’t shut people completely out of public spaces,” Walker said. “It is critically important for people to get out into these spaces for their physical health and for their mental health. To keep everyone shut in, I think, could lead to even more health problems.”
Julia Marcus, an infectious disease epidemiologist and professor at Harvard Medical School, said it’s misguided to close public outdoor spaces. Superspreader events, she said, are not happening at the beach.
Mayor Kirk 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.
But the rules are likely driving people to gather indoors, Marcus said, which is riskier because it provides less ventilation to disperse viral particles.
C.J. Johnson, physical activity coordinator for the Hawaii Department of Health’s Chronic Disease and Health Promotion Division, said stay-at-home directives and the loss of outdoor space access have the ability to undermine people’s physical and mental health.
“Part of our role in the chronic disease branch is to look at how, even at the same time that we are recommending distancing and minimizing social interaction, we are encouraging responsible outdoor time and responsible physical activity,” he said. “What we really don’t want to see happen is people who are pre-diabetic or who have borderline hypertension stop managing their conditions effectively because that will lead to negative health outcomes.”
Johnson, who spoke on his own behalf and not as a representative of the state, said he also thinks the rules disproportionately burden marginalized populations who depend on public spaces for recreation, exercise and boosts to their mental health.
“I can understand that there have been some concerns about huge beach gatherings and there have been pictures of bonfire parties,” he said. “But to draw a line from that to saying, you know, that now hiking trails and botanical gardens are closed seems to be a stretch.”
During the March stay-at-home order, Denise Karabinus and her husband were cited by police for sitting on an empty Kaimana Beach.
It was 8:30 p.m. and the family had been driving around Honolulu in their pajamas, trying to coax their 3-year-old son to sleep.
A ride in the car usually does the trick. But this time it wasn’t working. Their son was repeatedly asking to go to the beach.
Karbinus says the family parked the car and sat in the sand. A police officer served Karabinus and her husband with citations.
“After that,” Karabinus said, “that made us feel super paranoid about going out. Our son didn’t want to go outside the house at all.”
In recent weeks, Karabinus said her family of three has mostly been confined to their 783-square-foot Kakaako apartment.
For the foreseeable future, she and her husband are both working from home. Her husband, an information technology specialist for Hawaiian Electric, takes the couple’s bedroom, locking the door and working from the bed.
Karabinus, an art professor at Hawaii Pacific University, is teaching classes online. On workdays, she and her 3-year-old son use the rest of the apartment, which does not have a lanai.
The area that she considers her backyard is a communal pool and pool deck, which the apartment building shuts down when the island is under a stay-at-home order.
Now that it’s illegal to go to a beach, park, hiking trail or community garden with her son, there are few places Karabinus said she can go.
“The only place I can take my son to play is actually the designated smoking area,” Karabinus said.
Recently, Karabinus and her husband decided they can’t live this way with a toddler anymore. The restrictions on daily life brought about by the pandemic have pushed the family to search for a house to buy.
Although she said she supports the stay-at-home order as a measure to get the virus under control, Karabinus said she desperately wants a yard and the autonomy to use it, no matter the state of the world.
“We can’t put ourselves in this position again where we have a young child and we’re trapped inside all the time,” Karabinus said. “Having to keep a child inside all the time just doesn’t feel right.”
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