COVID-19 confusion: County parks being evaluated for reopening

  • A Parks maintenance employee shows off his new "bug busters" T-shirt in a photo provided by Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter, who said it was sent to her by an employee.

  • County Parks and Recreation maintenance employees did not practice social distancing at this March 23 meeting at Hilo Parks maintenance baseyard. Photo provided by Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter, who said it was sent to her by an employee at the meeting.

  • Surfers enter the water at Kahaluu Beach, which is closed. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • A couple ignores the park closed sign at Pahoehoe Beach Park on Friday. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • A sign at the Kona Community Aquatic Center and Kekuaokalani Gym indicates the closure of all county parks on Friday. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

All county parks and park facilities are closed. Except for the Hilo Municipal Golf Course.

People are told to stay home. Except for traveling to and from an essential business workplace or to go shopping for essential items.

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They can also go surfing or swimming, walking or walking their dogs as long as they maintain 6-foot social distancing through April 30, according to a proclamation signed by Gov. David Ige.

This doesn’t apply to newly arrived residents and visitors as of Thursday morning, who must maintain full quarantine in their homes, hotel rooms or vacation rentals for 14 days before falling under the general stay-at-home order.

Mayor Harry Kim’s daily civil defense radio message for the past several days has contained this phrase, “To all please practice everyday measures of prevention and most important keep yourself physically and emotionally healthy. Within the policies of social distancing and gatherings, exercise and enjoy Hawaii.”

While the governor and the mayor encourage swimming and surfing as a way to stay healthy and get some fresh air, a March 20 county order closed “all County of Hawaii beach and shoreline parks, public shoreline access easements, public open space shoreline and coastal lands, undeveloped county shoreline and coastal lands are closed to all access and uses until further notice.”

Non-beach parks were open until Tuesday, when they were closed without notice.

What’s a law-abiding citizen to do?

“I know there’s some confusion,” Kim said.

He said Friday he’s directed county division chiefs to go through every county park and facility to see which can safely be reopened while conforming to Ige’s emergency proclamation. Kim wants people to be able to get out and recreate for their physical and emotional health.

“All the things we know of health, the worst thing you can do for anybody is to keep them cooped up. Saltwater and sun are the natural enemy of the virus,” he said. “Within social distancing and limiting gatherings, we especially have to do it for people of youth and people of age. It’s detrimental to their mental health if you lock them up and keep them cooped up alone with no exercise, no fresh air, those kind of things.”

Neither the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention nor the World Health Organization list sunlight exposure as a way to kill coronavirus. There is no proof that swimming in saltwater, helps, although both swimming and some exposure to sunlight improve overall health.

People wondering what they’re allowed to do abound as Day 3 of a 37-day stay-at-home order continued Friday.

Sylvie Madison lives near a county beach and says she can hear lifeguards on their megaphones telling people they are trespassing. She thinks people should be able to make the decisions themselves if they want to get out of the house and go for a swim, a dive, a paddle or fish — and feed their families — while keeping social distancing as in the governor’s proclamation.

“Since Mayor Kim has declared every inch of oceanfront as closed and the governor says ocean activities are OK, it’s very confusing as to what proclamation is correct,” Madison said. “I find it unbelievable that going to the shoreline anywhere here is now a fine-able offense, and up to $5,000 no less. Are these activities at non-county, non-state beaches permitted?”

Kim said he had to make a blanket statement in a hurry because the state closed its beaches, sending masses of swimmers over to the county beaches on the west side of the island. He had to protect the public and workers, he said.

Some council members are calling for closure of all the parks, not just the beach ones, provided that restrooms are open and maintained in accordance with the CDC recommendations for homeless people.

Council members had asked for Parks Department personnel to appear at the council’s Wednesday meeting. Two officials showed up in the morning, but left after Lt. Gov. Josh Green’s session ran long and they didn’t return.

“I think it’s wise to keep our parks officially closed in my novice mind. It removes any temptation for people to have large gatherings,” said Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas. “However, I have concerns about the bathrooms and the need for those to remain open. Parks that have bathroom facilities, I think there needs to have considerations made.”

Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter wants them to stay closed, too.

“I believe all county parks and facilities should be closed, discouraging public gathering places for the safety of our people and our county workers,” she said.

Poindexter shared a photo of a meeting of Parks maintenance workers in Hilo that showed them crowded into and around the Hilo grounds maintenance baseyard building without observing the 6-foot social distancing or maximum of 10 to a room rule, which she said was taken by a parks worker at the meeting Monday. She also raised concerns about subjecting the workers, possibly without protective gear, to people and their debris in the parks.

“I’m shocked that the labor unions aren’t going bonkers on all of this,” Poindexter said.

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Kim said there have been a few cases where the room has held more than the allowed 10 people, for example, at Civil Defense during the recent tsunami watch. Sometimes it just can’t be helped.

“It certainly sends a negative message,” Kim agreed.

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