Work resumed Monday on the embattled city project at Sherwood Forest.
Mayor Kirk Caldwell rejected calls to postpone construction out of fear that it will lead to protests, which could increase the spread of the new coronavirus.
A construction crew arrived at the park with an excavator Monday morning to continue work on part of the Waimanalo Bay Beach Park master plan that had been put on hold since October.
Also present were about two dozen opponents of the project, which the city said involves a field and an 11-stall parking lot on 4 acres at Sherwood Forest, officially known as Waimanalo Bay Beach Park.
>> Photo Gallery: Sherwood Forest project resumes amid COVID-19 outbreak
Nearly all protesters were wearing protective equipment, such as masks and gloves, to prevent the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus that had infected nearly 400 people in Hawaii as of Monday.
The city’s decision to continue with the project during a health crisis was a surprise to some.
“It was very shocking to see (Caldwell) announce that he was actually going to start construction up again here at Hunananiho (Sherwood Forest) in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic,” said Healani Sonoda-Pale, who was at Sherwood Forest on Monday. “It not just puts the workers at risk, but it puts us at risk as well.”
Sonoda-Pale, a Kuliouou resident, said it was necessary to go to the park to take a stand against the $1.34 million project, even if it put her at risk of COVID-19. She said opponents of the project were receiving mixed instructions about showing up Monday, but for her there was no question about whether she should try stopping construction at Sherwood Forest, which is home to nearly 100 ancestral bones and could be one of the first locations Hawaiians settled in after reaching the archipelago.
“Despite the fact that we all were told to stay home … as a kanaka maoli, how are we going to stay home when they’re digging our kupuna up and desecrating our sacred sites?” Sonoda-Pale said.
Critics say continuing the project now means people, including protesters, construction workers and police, will gather at the park, even though most people in the state has been ordered to stay at home in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. Increased exposure to the disease prompted numerous requests from the public and from elected officials asking Caldwell to stop the project for the duration of the disease outbreak.
Honolulu City Council Chairman (and area Councilman) Ikaika Anderson, Lt. Gov. Josh Green and Honolulu City Councilwoman Kym Pine had each expressed concern that the construction will lead to increased exposure to the virus.
“Mayor Caldwell’s decision to resume construction at Sherwood Forest is dangerous and should be reconsidered immediately,” Green said in a statement on social media Monday afternoon. “Now is not the time to unnecessarily expose community members who protest this project, police and construction workers to COVID-19.”
Caldwell held a news conference and said people would not be at a higher risk of the disease if they practiced social distancing, or stayed 6 feet apart from each other.
When asked about adjusting the project’s timeline, Caldwell said other construction projects around the island have continued despite the outbreak, and added now might even be a more appropriate time to do so.
“We live with the COVID-19 pandemic every day here at the City and County of Honolulu, and there are other projects we’re going to be proceeding with — construction projects very small and very large,” Caldwell said. “In some ways it’s the proper time to do it. You know, there are people who need money in their pockets. … This is another way to put money in the pockets of our local contractors and employees.”
Anderson, a supporter of the master plan, disagreed with that assessment.
“No one’s going to get sick physically if construction stops until the pandemic is over, but I cannot with absolute certainty, absolute certainty, say no one’s going to get sick if we proceed — we don’t know that,” he said. “And I understand we had kupuna out there today. I’m concerned for their safety.”
Kuike Kamakea-Ohelo of Save Our Sherwoods agreed that construction should stop while the disease is still spreading.
“That’s one of the reasons why we didn’t put out a kahea to call the masses to come in and stand in the gaps and express themselves,” he said.
Attorney Tim Vandeveer, who represents SOS and other plaintiffs in an ongoing lawsuit against the city and the U.S. Department of the Interior to stop the project, said in a statement Sunday that “it is not fair or proper for the City to proceed before the Court has had an opportunity to rule on their actions.”
During Monday’s news conference, Caldwell responded, “The city gets sued all the time. If every time we got a lawsuit filed and we stopped a project, nothing would go forward.”
Regarding the status of the project, Caldwell said it will include a “grassy field” where people can gather and cultural activities can take place. He said it is up to the community to decide whether sports will take place there.
Caldwell said to expect that police enforcement will increase. He said no arrests were made at Sherwood Forest on Monday but that Honolulu police gave out two citations, including one for a person who had been residing on the property.
“The police have become more aggressive in citations,” he said. “We’ve gone through an education process since the stay-at-home, work-at-home order was issued — a lot of warnings. They’re now going to be doing less warnings and more citations.”
While at the Sherwood Forest on Monday afternoon, Sonoda-Pale worried about what the construction means for the park but also for other culturally important sites like Mauna Kea, where Hawaiian activists are fighting to stop construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope.
“What I’m particularly concerned about after today is what’s going to happen on the mauna,” Sonoda-Pale said. “Because this is telling us that the state has no regard for (our) well-being or keeping us safe in terms of the coronavirus.”