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Kauai responds to coronavirus with crackdowns and compassion

  • PHOTO COURTESY KAUAI POLICE DEPARTMENT
                                Kauai police operate checkpoints along Kaumualii Highway to enforce Mayor Kawakami’s stay-at-home order as a measure to combat COVID-19.

    PHOTO COURTESY KAUAI POLICE DEPARTMENT

    Kauai police operate checkpoints along Kaumualii Highway to enforce Mayor Kawakami’s stay-at-home order as a measure to combat COVID-19.

  • BRUCE ASATO / JAN. 15
                                Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami at the opening of the Legislature.

    BRUCE ASATO / JAN. 15

    Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami at the opening of the Legislature.

  • U.S. ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS HONOLULU DISTRICT
                                Above, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conducted five site assessments at various locations on Kauai for potential conversion.

    U.S. ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS HONOLULU DISTRICT

    Above, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conducted five site assessments at various locations on Kauai for potential conversion.

  • U.S. ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS HONOLULU DISTRICT
                                Members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Honolulu District and the U.S. Public Health Service, above, arrived on Kauai on Friday to assess potential COVID-19 sites for alternate care facilities.

    U.S. ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS HONOLULU DISTRICT

    Members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Honolulu District and the U.S. Public Health Service, above, arrived on Kauai on Friday to assess potential COVID-19 sites for alternate care facilities.

For the first time since the novel coronavirus pandemic hit the islands, Hawaii National Guard troops deployed on Kauai on Tuesday to help county police staff checkpoints designed to clamp down on unpermitted travel around the Garden Island.

Kauai was the first county to put up traffic checkpoints and to issue a 9 p.m. curfew — while simultaneously allowing homeless people to sleep in some county parks where they have access to bathrooms so they don’t potentially spread the new coronavirus among homeless encampments.

Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami called the changes “some of the most restrictive measures right off the bat.”

“This is something new and requires change — and change is difficult,” Kawakami told the Honolulu Star- Advertiser on Tuesday.

The mixture of compassion and crackdowns on an island of 75,000 residents — with one highway that does not even circumnavigate the island — is designed to curb the number of COVID-19 cases, which numbered 19 as of Tuesday. Kauai has had no reported COVID-19 deaths.

Kauai famously took the brunt of Hurricane Iniki in 1992 and has suffered through other natural disasters, such as last year’s storms and landslides that battered the North Shore and all but obliterated Kuhio Highway, isolating the tourist-friendly town of Haena.

But this crisis is unlike any other Kauai has faced, said Kawakami, a former state representative and county councilman who was elected mayor in 2018.

The recoveries from previous disasters “were like a sprint,” he said. The coronavirus pandemic “is more like an ultramarathon” that requires “mental discipline and preparedness.”

Especially painful, Kawakami cannot respond to his natural instinct to hug residents facing unemployment amid fears of catching or spreading the virus.

“I know that people are worried, and we’re doing everything that we possibly can to find solutions to all the things on their shoulders that are burdening them,” he said.

Kawakami simultaneously thanked the majority of residents, who are following the new restrictions, while promising, “We are going to get out of this. We are.”

On March 20, Kawakami imposed an islandwide curfew from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., with exceptions for people who can prove they’re going to and from work; they are so-called essential workers, are making essential deliveries or are seeking medical treatment.

But Kawakami also included a special message for tourists: “Until further notice, visitors should not be traveling to our island for recreational purposes,” he said in a statement before adding, “Kauai is on vacation!”

Gary Hooser, a former Kauai state senator and councilman, initially questioned the need for a 9 p.m. curfew.

Now he openly praises both Kawakami’s actions and Kawakami’s steady leadership — and hopes that Kauai could serve as a “pilot project” for the rest of the state.

Hooser described Kawakami’s approach to fighting the spread of the coronavirus as “tightening the screws day by day.”

“I commend Mayor Kawakami for taking the actions he’s taking in a way that is thoughtful and methodical,” Hooser said. “Every day he seems to announce tightening the screws day by day. He’s not hysterical. He’s not panicking. He’s not accusing or blaming other people like others are doing. He’s showing real leadership.”

Hooser believes that Kauai one day soon can lead the rest of the state in eliminating the spread of the coronavirus.

“Kauai is the most isolated island in the most isolated island chain in the Pacific,” Hooser said. “It would be a natural place to get rid of the virus and keep it out and get our economy back going.”

Current Kauai state Rep. Nadine Nakamura offered similar praise for what she called the mayor’s “strong leadership during this coronavirus crisis.”

”He has been aggressive in pursuing stay at home policies, a 9 p.m. curfew, and checkpoints,” she said in an email to the Star-Advertiser. “His message has been consistent and clear. He and his team should be commended for their work to keep Kauai free of visitors and reduce community spread on the Garden Island.”

At the request of the county, Hawaii National Guard troops — most of them based on Kauai — deployed for the first time to assist local police to staff checkpoints.

The unarmed Guard troops are assigned to back up police officers enforcing the county’s stay-at-home and 14-day quarantine orders. Violations could result in misdemeanor fines of up to $5,000 and a year in jail.

To date, almost 60 misdemeanor citations have been issued, the majority pertaining to curfew violations, police said. Fifteen were issued at beaches to individuals violating COVID-19 emergency orders and three people have been arrested for ignoring the travel quarantine order.

Kauai Police Chief Todd G. Raybuck, in a statement, thanked Gov. David Ige and Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara for providing resources to supplement KPD’s efforts, saying the island has reached “a critical moment in the pandemic, as case counts climb,” and noting Kauai’s limited health care resources.

Kawakami said he sympathizes with the economic struggles of resorts, mom-and-pop restaurants and workers who are struggling through the pandemic, worrying when they can return to their jobs.

But there has been one unexpected upside.

With most people staying at home — coupled with the island’s 9 p.m. curfew — Kawakami said Kauai hospitals are seeing a 40% decrease in incoming patients.

While he worries about domestic violence among families stuck at home, he said vehicle accidents are down, along with “all of the unnecessary business that goes on during the witching hours, when the werewolves come out.”

Click here to see our full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak. Submit your coronavirus news tip.

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