A week after Honolulu city parks were closed in an effort to impede the spread of the highly contagious new coronavirus, the Department of Parks and Recreation announced Wednesday that restrooms in the parks would reopen that day, while the parks themselves would remain closed.
However, about 54 out of 60 restrooms spot-checked all around Oahu — in parks from central Kaimuki, Moiliili and Manoa to Kailua, Kaneohe, Kahaluu, Waimanalo and Waianae — had not reopened as of Thursday, said volunteers with Hui Aloha, the homeless advocacy group.
Mayor Kirk Caldwell reaffirmed Thursday that the restrooms were being opened, noting that there were “a total of 216 comfort stations” in the city’s 300 parks. “I wish it would happen more quickly, but it is happening,” he said. Meanwhile, DPR Director Michele Nekota said that park comfort stations had been kept open for bus drivers at bus stops islandwide since the park closures.
State park restrooms were also closed, but restrooms at small boat harbors and boat ramps were reopened Wednesday by the Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation, in order “to observe (U.S. Centers for Disease Control) guidance for ensuring availability of toilets and hand washing facilities for people experiencing homelessness during this COVID-19 emergency,” DLNR announced, adding that all DOBOR restroom facilities will be open 24 hours daily.
This was a relief to the 270 or more members of the Pu‘uhonua o Waianae homeless encampment next to Waianae Small Boat Harbor who had suddenly found themselves shut out of the sanitary facilities they relied on at the harbor and neighboring Waianae District Park, said Twinkle Borge, the community’s leader.
“They just went open ’em up yesterday afternoon,” Borge said Thursday of the harbor facilities, adding that the city park restroom remained closed.
Borge had also checked bathrooms in the other Waianae beach parks “and almost all of ’em was closed,” she said.
Members of Pu‘uhonua had acted quickly, pitching in to rent four portable toilets for $1,000 a month, and improvising two sinks using gallons of bottled water, Borge said.
But for the many other homeless campers who relied on now-closed bathrooms in city parks, “it’s gonna get out of hand,” Borge said, if facilities didn’t reopen soon.
“We keep emphasizing to the city that every hour these restrooms are closed, it’s creating more and more emergency situations for these people, who are forced to relieve themselves in public,” said Hui Aloha volunteer James Koshiba.
Rather than fostering sheltering in place, “closing public restrooms near where they live displaces people and puts them on the move,” he said, adding that Hui Aloha volunteers are awaiting a response to an offer they’ve made to the city to help clean its park restrooms.
If alternative housing units can’t be provided, the CDC’s website advises against clearing encampments, which “can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers, (which) increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”
Restroom facilities near encampments should “remain open 24 hours per day,” the CDC directs.
”It is critical to maintain access to these basic services to ensure proper hygiene and to minimize the potential for community spread of COVID-19,” said Scott Morishige, Gov. David Ige’s coordinator on homelessness. “We continue to evaluate whether additional state facilities can be opened, particularly in areas near known homeless encampments.”
The city has supported the operations of mobile hygiene trailers and developed hygiene centers in Iwilei and Chinatown “to support the ongoing needs of our unsheltered population while connecting them to necessary social services and housing,” said DPR spokesman Nate Serota.
In addition, Serota said, hours have been extended at the city’s Punawai Rest Stop, and the city is “working hard to get to 24/7 operations there.”
He added that the city park restrooms were designed for occasional use by members of the general public.
But on Thursday, Maunawili resident Eric Ching told the Honolulu Star- Advertiser the entrance to the restroom at Maunawili Neighborhood Park had been boarded up since Tuesday.
Some city parks restroom facilities might be locked because they’ve been undergoing renovation or deep cleaning, Caldwell said.
Once reopened, restrooms in city parks will be closed, in general, from about 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., in accordance with former park closure hours; the parks themselves will remain closed 24 hours a day, Serota said. For a list of city parks and their closure hours, visit honolulu.gov/parks/default/park-closure-hours.