Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and the state Department of Health announced Tuesday that they have retained an entire Waikiki hotel as a COVID-19 quarantine and isolation center — more than doubling the rooms in the district that are available for this purpose.
Caldwell said the city had retained “an entire hotel of hundreds of rooms to quarantine folks in that are either positive or have come into close contact with other positives,” and is “working to retain other hotels” to meet the need, which is expected to grow as Oahu steps up its testing and contact tracing capacity.
“When we find those positives, they cannot be quarantined with other members of their family, who continue to go to work and spread the virus, particularly in our Pacific Islander community and in our Filipino-American community, where we see an increasing number of cases,” he said, adding that such stays would be voluntary and complimentary.
Caldwell’s remarks were made during a media briefing Tuesday at the Honolulu Fire Department headquarters, when he was joined by U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams, Hawaii Gov. David Ige, Lt. Gov. Josh Green, and other officials, including Eddie Mersereau, Behavioral Health Services Administration deputy director for the state Department of Health.
“We’re looking at bringing on about 130 new hotel units as of this week, which will bring our capacity up to about 300,” Mesereau said. “If people are interested in quarantine and isolation, all they have to do is call our Hawaii Cares line at 832-3100 on Oahu.”
Caldwell declined to name the Waikiki hotels that are partnering with the city and DOH.
Multiple Waikiki sources, however, said the quarantine and isolation locations include the roughly 130-room Pearl Hotel Waikiki, and the Equus Hotel, and possibly another location. At one point, the Waikiki Beachside Hostel also had been under consideration.
The Equus Hotel and the Waikiki Beachside Hostel did not immediately return a call from the Star-Advertiser.
Kelly Sanders, Highgate’s vice president of operations for Hawaii, confirmed Tuesday that Highgate opened one of its shuttered hotels exclusively for the city and state’s quarantine and isolation needs and began taking guests on Friday as part of a month-long agreement.
Sanders declined to name the property, but said the partnership has been going smoothly and all 25 or so staff members who were brought back to service the property have been trained in COVID-19-related safety protocols. The hotel is only open to guests who are quarantining or isolating, he said.
“There really is a need to keep the hospitals there for people who need immediate care. It’s a positive in my mind to provide a place where people can go that are exposed and don’t want to go home and expose their families,” Sanders said.
Adams commended Ige and Caldwell for setting up quarantine and isolation centers, which along with testing and contact tracing are key to stopping the community spread of COVID.
“We know a test is great as a start, but if you don’t have the availability to isolate or to quarantine then you are going to continue to spread the disease,” Adams said.
Space also is needed to address COVID-19 clusters at the Oahu Community Correctional Center and the Institute for Human Services.
A city-owned building on Kaaahi Street already has been turned into a quarantine and isolation facility. IHS’ Sumner Men’s Shelter, where a COVID-19 outbreak started on Aug. 5, also is temporarily serving as a quarantine and isolation spot. But IHS Executive Director Connie Mitchell said there isn’t enough space there to meet the need.
The Department of Public Safety reported on Tuesday that so far 242 inmates and 51 staff members have tested positive for COVID, although testing is still ongoing. The Hawaii Supreme Court ordered the temporary release of certain pretrial detainees and inmates at the Oahu Community Correctional Center starting Aug. 18. Through Tuesday, DPS had released 130 of them.
While few would dispute that Hawaii needs COVID-19 quarantine and isolation centers, not everyone wants them in their own backyard, or in the state’s top tourism district.
Kathryn Henski, a Waikiki Neighborhood Board member, said she’s worried that DOH “won’t be able to keep people in the centers.”
“By bringing them into one of the most highly populated areas, I think they could actually be creating more exposure for our community,” she said. “They’ve let us down before so there’s no trust.”
Others, including Unite Here Local 5, want reassurances that hotel workers, who are employed at quarantine and isolation centers, will be protected.
Mufi Hannemann, president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, said it’s already been about a month since some Waikiki hotels opened their rooms for COVID-19 quarantine and isolation.
“We are adhering to a set of standards where we agreed if we are going to have guests that we will take care of them, even if they have COVID-19, until we are told that they need to be hospitalized,” Hannemann said. “We’ve made it clear to government officials that we would do that and we are prepared.”
Still, a series of videos from an alleged hotel worker recently made the social media rounds on Instagram and TikTok. The worker, who did not identify herself or the property, alleged that DOH’s quarantine and isolation program lacked the oversight to keep hotel workers and other hotel guests safe. The woman declined to be interviewed.
When asked about the video allegations, DOH spokeswoman Janice Okubo said in an email Tuesday that “DOH has notified hotels about the allegations on social media and advised them to inform us if they observe any individual not observing quarantine and isolation requirements so that DOH can address it directly with the individual.”