As Hawaii cases of the novel coronavirus continued to surge last week, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said he was considering re-closing bars and gyms, and the state Department of Health announced that bars and restaurants that violated sanitary and social distancing requirements would be closed until they complied.
Meanwhile, veteran turtle scientist George Balazs is asking the city and state to close what he warns is another high-risk venue: Laniakea, aka Turtle Beach, a wildly popular tourist attraction on Oahu’s North Shore that was seeing an estimated 500,000 visitors a year before Gov. David Ige imposed a 14-day self-quarantine for out-of-state airport arrivals in late March.
“It’s not the turtles’ safety I’m worried about this time, it’s human health,” said the retired biologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who helped get the Hawaiian green sea turtle listed as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act of 1978. “It would be tragic if turtles became an inadvertent factor in people’s getting sick.”
In a June 27 letter published in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and a June 29 email to Caldwell and other government officials, Balazs warned that the beach, which is currently seeing light, mostly local traffic due to the quarantine, could become a COVID-19 hot spot when tourism reopens, bringing back the swarms of honu-gawkers who caused traffic jams on Kamehameha Highway and crowded around the basking reptiles.
Before the pandemic, Turtle Beach received an average 1,725 to 2,000 people a day in summer, its peak season, said Joe Murphy, president of Malama Na Honu, a nonprofit conservation group that has educated and monitored visitors at Laniakea Beach for 12 years.
While most scientists say COVID-19 is some 20 times more likely to be transmitted indoors than out, Suzanne Case, chairwoman of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, said her agency was considering Balazs’ concerns.
“Although the area is outdoors, the beach is very small, and the resting turtles attract large crowds of onlookers who do not always keep their distance from the turtles nor one another,” Case said in an email to the Star-Advertiser.
“If compact crowds return with increased tourism in the future, it could create a heightened risk of COVID-19 transmission,” she added.
Malama Na Honu volunteers have been advising beachgoers to keep 6 feet away from one another in addition to 10 feet away from the turtles, Murphy said, but agreed with Balazs that as tourism recovers, “if one could actually close the beach, it would be the best way to protect people.”
However, “I don’t think you can do that without having a constant presence of law enforcement officials who are more urgently needed elsewhere,” he added. “I would hope our volunteers would be permitted to continue monitoring the turtles, but they are not enforcers.”
Balazs believes closure can work. “If you officially flag the beach as off-limits, most of the people will obey it,” he said. “It’s just like the quarantine — some obey and some don’t — but at least we’re cutting back on (risk) a little.”
But tourists don’t see warning signs and caution tape, Murphy said.
To keep the virus at bay, “(Hawaii has) used the honor system, which may work with Oahu residents worried about passing it on to neighbors and friends,” Murphy said. “But hordes of people from the mainland, they don’t really care.”
While most people welcome guidance from volunteers, there are harassers who “shout, ‘I paid a lot of money to come here and I’m going to do whatever I (expletive) well please.’”
That includes sitting on turtles, pulling their tails, pounding on their shells like drums, trying to feed them and taking close-up selfies, Murphy said.
Since late March, “we’ve also had some quarantine breakers who say they arrived in Hawaii two or three days before,” he said, adding these are the sorts of people who won’t be put off by a closed beach.
Because travel websites and social media relentlessly promote Turtle Beach, Balazs also called on government agencies to launch a public information campaign if and when they close it.
He and researcher Gavin Lamb have posted an online petition demanding the state temporarily close the beach for a six-month trial period while allowing the public to cross the sand for ocean exercise, fishing and gathering as was permitted during the initial closure of Oahu beaches in March.
Case said DLNR would be keeping an eye on the situation, and Alexander Zannes, spokesman for the mayor, said the city hadn’t specifically discussed Turtle Beach but was “examining all possible options to keep (everyone) safe, (which) includes discouraging large gatherings both indoors and outdoors.”
While closure of “one tiny beach” might seem like a small step,” Balazs wrote officials, “small steps like this are exactly what’s needed for the ultimate safety of all.”
The petition, which had more than 450 signatures by Saturday, can be found at chng.it/TtxDpzRd.