Honolulu residents who rent plots in the city’s 10 community gardens are again urging Mayor Kirk Caldwell to reconsider his decision to include their program among the activities required to be closed under the latest COVID-19 lockdown.
Leonard Smothermon, president of the Hawaii Kai Community Garden, said a majority of the people who utilize the more than 1,200 plots are seniors. The elderly gardeners “rely on their garden plots for their health, exercise, mental well-being and to supplement their diets,” he said.
Health officials consider seniors a demographic that’s among those at the largest risk for contracting COVID-19. But Smothermon said when allowed to open earlier this year, there were no reports of infection clusters tied to the gardens.
“The community gardens are the safest place you could be,” Smothermon said. “They are outside, we easily social distance, we have mask compliance, we have ample soap and water to wash hands, keep everything clean. Any shared tools are cleaned and disinfected between each use.”
Caldwell announced earlier this month that all parks, beaches and community gardens would be closed to the public amid the rising rate of coronavirus infection. After an initial verbal protest, the city agreed to have Department of Parks and Recreation workers water the gardens twice a week at nine of the 10 locations.
However, “there’s still a lot that the gardens need,” Smothermon said. “There’s not a switch that can go off and on with a garden. It has to be ongoing with lots of care that goes into it.”
After the city’s first shutdown in March led to the closure of the gardens, users raised alarms with the mayor and Caldwell rescinded the order. But a city official noted that the earlier decision was made at a time when reports showed only a handful of people were testing positive, while more recent reports show 200-300 new positive cases each day.
Parks officials have told leaders of the newly formed Garden Helpers’ Network that the community garden will be considered for reopening once the number of positive cases drop.
Smothermon said that will be too late.
“We think by the time the closure is lifted, we can expect many of the carefully cultivated crops to either have gone to seed, died from neglect and no long available for harvest and to eat. Weeds will have overtaken some of the crops and the pathways, and for gardeners to have missed the opportunity to prepare their soil and plant for the next season that’s coming up.”
Elena Kick, a Manoa Community Garden participant, said she and others depend on their gardens as “a safe source of food for our diets. During this time, we prefer to go to our garden and pick fresh produce rather than lining up and going into crowded supermarkets because we are scared of contracting the virus.”