Honolulu’s order for residents to live and work from their homes will continue for another two weeks, but the island’s parks, beaches and trails will reopen for “solo activity,” Mayor Kirk Caldwell announced on Tuesday.

Nonessential businesses will remain closed.

The latest order takes effect first thing Thursday morning and will continue through Sept. 23.

A surfer heads to the water for a sunset ride at Ala Moana Beach Park in Honolulu, HI, Monday, August 10, 2020. (Ronen Zilberman photo Civil Beat)
As of Thursday, people can visit Oahu’s beaches again – but only by themselves. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2020

Individuals 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. Parking lots will be open for permitted activities.

“We do believe outdoors is safer than indoors. We’ve said that repeatedly,” the mayor said.

“But the reason why we shut down our parks, beaches and trails was because we lost control and allowed large gatherings to take place, up to 100, 150 people, maybe more in certain parks. Very hard to enforce those kinds of gatherings, so we had to do a closure of parks, beaches and trails to gain control.”

Caldwell commended the police for its enforcement efforts and residents for complying during the shutdown. The reopening of outdoor spaces is a consequence of that cooperation, the mayor said.

On Tuesday, the state announced one of the lowest daily COVID-19 case counts seen in over a month. However, the Department of Health has yet to publicly identify a single COVID-19 cluster tied to a beach, park or trail.

On a new “data dashboard prototype” released on Friday, the DOH listed cases related to general community spread, travel, prisons, nursing homes, eateries, funerals, offices, construction, gyms and schools. Beaches, parks and trails weren’t even listed as categories.

The mayor said his order prohibits people, even those living in the same household, from visiting parks or beaches together. That means that parents are not allowed to bring their kids to the beach, he said, and couples may not hike together, even at a distance.

The reason is not about COVID-19 risk but instead about making it easier for the Honolulu Police Department to enforce, Caldwell said.

“When you talk about the same household, and you’re a police officer, how do you know who’s in the same household when you go to enforce?” he said. “The reason why we did just one, it’s easy to tell if someone is just walking, running, sitting by themselves. It’s harder when you have a group of people together.”

The mayor said his approach is to implement “very simple, bright-line enforcement measures.”

Vice Admiral Jerome Adams US Surgeon General and Mayor Kirk Caldwell during COVID-19 surge testing press conference held at the Leeward Community College parking lot. August 26, 2020
Caldwell says closures and limitations on usage of open spaces make it easier for police to know who to ticket. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Caldwell has been widely criticized for his closure of parks, beaches and trails by residents, especially families with children, who are desperate for fresh air and open spaces after months of being cooped up at home.

Residents have also expressed outrage with what they consider to be overzealous issuance of citations by Honolulu police officers. Hundreds of people are facing fines up to $5,000 and/or jail time for offenses as seemingly harmless as walking their dogs alone in empty parks.

A Sept. 4 letter to the governor, mayor and police chief from the Hawaii Public Health Institute and over 200 other nonprofits and individuals stated that the closure of open spaces “both ignores the evidence on transmission and is unnecessarily punitive towards those doing otherwise lawful and healthy behaviors.”

Epidemiologists have pointed out that the closure of open spaces wasn’t a decision based in science.

The signatories to the letter wrote that the move was counterproductive and harmful.

“During these times, when health is paramount, it’s important that we shift our thinking from ‘holding our breath’ to developing sustainable norms that promote resilience and encourage wellness,” the letter states. “It’s time to reopen the parks, beaches, trails, and community gardens – safely – so all residents can achieve their best health.”

Key City Officials

On Tuesday, Hawaii Public Health Institute’s Policy and Advocacy Director Trish La Chica said the mayor’s new order is a step in the right direction, but one that still raises concerns. Families need outdoor spaces for their physical and mental health, she said.

The city should implement policies that make sense to the public so that they voluntarily comply instead of police crackdowns that erode public trust, according to La Chica, who is running for state representative.

“With these measures that feel too restrictive, it removes the focus away from why we’re doing this in the first place,” she said.

The order also doesn’t specify if there are exceptions available for people with disabilities. That could be a major problem for kupuna who need a caregiver to get around, La Chica said.

A Change.org petition started over a month ago now has 10,000 signatures from people demanding that “the hiking trails of Hawaii be re-opened to the public immediately.”

Shannon Yarber, a mother and small business owner who started the petition, said hiking with her kids early on amid the pandemic was a way for her family to connect with nature, relieve stress and improve sleep. The mayor’s latest policy means those benefits are still off-limits for her and her three little ones, ages two, five and seven.

“With being in virtual school and in front of a computer all the time, children need access to nature more than anything right now,” she said. “To punish kids and not allow them access to trails, beaches and parks, it’s not fair.”

HPD officers hand out citations along Kalakaua avenue due to the Mayor’s order that closed parks and beaches around Oahu due to COVID-19 pandemic. August 12, 2020
Officers have cited hundreds of people for allegedly violating the mayor’s shutdown orders. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Yarber noted that hikers are always advised not to go out alone.  Caldwell’s order means that is the only way to hike.

“If someone gets in trouble on a hiking trail, you need to have someone with you to call for help,” she said.

When it comes to enforcement, Yarber said the police could break up groups on a case by case basis.

“Why punish everyone because a few people aren’t going to be following the rules?” she asked. “There are ways to enforce this without controlling people. To me, this is more about police control which, honestly, is eroding the public trust.”

Families are still allowed to swim in the ocean but must traverse the park only to visit the water and then leave immediately upon exiting the water, according to Brandi Higa, a member of the mayor’s communications team.

That’s just not realistic, Yarber said.

“I have friends with young kids worried about going to the ocean because they don’t want to feel like they’re doing something wrong if their two-year-old needs a snack on the beach,” she said. “It’s hard to keep a two-year-old in the ocean for an hour.” 

Prior to Sept. 24 when this order expires, the mayor said he will make an announcement about how to reopen more in a “very careful, cautious way, not to rush like we did the first time where we had 10 reopenings and then a surge in cases which led to the second shutdown.”

“We don’t want to repeat that a third time,” the mayor said. “And so we’re going to be very careful, put a lot more science, a lot more thought into what happens.”

The mayor added that the city is in the process of hiring between 250 and 500 contact tracers which will be paid for with the city’s federal relief funds. They will report to the Department of Health, he said.

“We’re going to use our CARES money to hire the army that they’re going to manage,” Caldwell said.

Honolulu has also contracted with a “quarantine hotel” and is pursuing a deal with a second, Caldwell said. Like the contact tracers, the hotels are being covered with Honolulu CARES Act funds, but DOH is managing and operating them, the mayor said.

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