Many people let loose for the holiday season on Maui, and it’s showing in the largest surge of new COVID-19 cases since the summer.

State and county officials largely blame the COVID-19 spike on a series of gatherings, including an outbreak of more than 80 cases at the Harbor Lights condo complex that is believed to have started with a holiday choir practice.

And, they say, it will likely get worse before it gets better.

“We anticipate the numbers to peak by mid-to-late January and begin trending downward,” said Brian Perry, a spokesman for Maui Mayor Michael Victorino.

Case counts are climbing on the Valley Isle, with nearly 300 new cases so far this year, including 51 on Saturday, raising the total to 1,247. The county’s infection rate is at an all-time high of 1.24 — higher than Honolulu’s 1.11, according to a model from the Harvard Chan School of Public Health.

When the infection rate is greater than 1, that means disease is likely to spread more quickly.

Source: Hawaii Department of Health Disease Outbreak Control Division

Victorino issued a new order on Dec. 30 encouraging people to stay at home or in their place of lodging, but did not mandate it. Gatherings are limited to five people.

County meetings, night clubs and concert halls have been shut down, while bars and restaurants must close at 10 p.m. Beaches and parks remain open, with the exception of some, including a beach at Makena State Park that was temporarily closed after hundreds of unmasked people gathered at a drum circle.

No additional restrictions are planned for now, but Victorino “will not hesitate to enforce more restrictive protections” if needed, the spokesman said.

So what happened? It all seemed to be settling down for a while after a huge statewide surge in the summer, when 200 to 300 cases were reported on a daily basis and the infection rate exceeded 1.7.

Many had hoped that Hawaii was on its way back to flattening the curve, even as visitors returned following the Oct. 15 start of the Safe Travels pre-arrival testing program.

People on Maui have become too relaxed about virus-fighting measures nearly a year into the pandemic, said Dr. Michael Shea, chief medical director for Maui Health.

Maui Mayor Michael Victorino says he’s prepared to enact tighter measures should they be necessary. Nick Grube/Civil Beat

“What I’ve observed is that people just are not as vigilant as they were,” Shea said.

And with tourism’s return and businesses opening back up, people started going out and gathering again, which has contributed to the increase in community spread. “It’s human nature. We love to gather,” he said.

Shea said the current surge in cases can be controlled, but only if people follow the rules.

With the vaccine’s rollout, people are seeing the “light at the end of the tunnel,” but inoculation doesn’t make one invincible, he said.

The community still needs to social distance, wear masks and practice good hygiene until 70% or more are vaccinated to achieve the herd immunity needed for life to return to normal, he said.

“I think it’s really important not to let down our guard before we reach the finish line,” he said.

Clusters, Movement, Outbreak

State officials are testing and investigating the outbreak at the Harbor Lights condominium, which houses multiple families living in tight quarters in Kahului. They are also coordinating with other agencies to provide food and other services so residents don’t have to leave until it’s deemed safe.

“Supporting residents’ needs while they isolate and quarantine is key so that they do not need to venture out to get food and medicine,” Spencer Headley, Maui district health office epidemiology specialist, said in an email.

Cluster reports from the state health department show multiple other clusters — albeit with fewer cases — on Maui tied to bars and nightclubs, restaurants, travel and lodging, social gatherings and places of worship.

The latest report from Jan. 7 shows one Maui restaurant had 12 cases and a bar had six.

In general, people on Maui have been moving about more since October, as did the whole state, mobility data from the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization’s SafeGraph dashboard shows.

If you just look at the data for the whole county of Maui, there’s not a huge decline in the percentage of people staying at home all day before the reopening versus after.

But zooming in to the different census tracts, you can see that some areas, including Honokowai, Wailea and Lahaina areas have seen some sharp dips.

For instance, 43.75% of people stayed at home all day between July 26 and Oct. 11 in the tract representing Honokowai, compared with 26.53% between Oct. 11 and Dec. 27.

Use the red arrow at the bottom to see the difference between the two time periods:

Source: UHERO Mobility Dashboard

On The Ground

You don’t always need data to know that more people are moving about on the island. You can see and feel it, says Megan Moniz, a Wailuku resident who was born and raised on Maui.

It hasn’t felt like everyone has been making the same level of sacrifice to make the pandemic go away, she said. Maui residents rooted there who keep the place up and running are sacrificing a lot more than those who are just passing by.

“It feels like an unfair deal right now,” she said. She and her family limit their trips outside to grocery shopping and other essential tasks, but she said it’s tough to see visitors and other people “gallivanting” about town.

More than 256,000 people, some 201,000 of whom were visitors, have arrived through Kahului airport on Maui since Oct. 15, according to Safe Travels data.

Travel-related cases accounted for 15% of total cases on Maui in December and 32% in November, state case data shows, leading state and county officials to conclude that community spread is the predominant mode of transmission.

Source: Hawaii Department of Health Disease Outbreak Control Division

However, Moniz says possible exposure to the coronavirus isn’t the only reason she and many other locals are wary of the return of tourism.

To her, the pandemic has amplified long-standing issues within the local community, such as crumbling infrastructure, income inequality, lack of public transportation and affordable housing, she said.

The outbreak at Harbor Lights shows some of those problems, Moniz said. The locals all know that multigenerational families live in tight quarters there with limited space, creating a virus-prone environment.

Instead of fixing those issues first, it seems like the government invited tourists back in an attempt to save the economy, she said.

“They set the tone and the tone seems to favor tourism,” she said. That makes the sacrifice of the kamaaina more difficult, she added.

Little Beach has since been shut down. State officials say weekly drum circles there have the potential to be super-spreader events. Courtesy: Department of Land and Natural Resources

Moniz said she felt deeply upset after reading two news stories in sequence last week — one about Maui kids and parents pleading to play sports again and the other about the drum circle at Puu Olai, a.k.a. Little Beach.

“The dichotomy is tough to accept,” Moniz said. On one hand, there were little kids who can’t play sports because of the pandemic, while on the other, there were irresponsible, careless adults partying naked on the beach, she added.

Now is the time to reevaluate what’s more important, she said — drum circles and getting more people from outside to come party here, or getting this virus under control and kids back to school.

“I hope this is an eye opener for us,” she said.

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