Clamping down: County could return to beach closures amid coronavirus spike

  • A sign at the Kona Community Aquatic Center and Kekuaokalani Gym indicates the closure of all county parks on March 27, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. Closing parks and beaches and canceling the Ironman World Championship are among remedies being considered by Mayor Mitch Roth as the administration works to tamp back a surging coronavirus pandemic on the island. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Laaloa Bay Beach Park, also known as Magic Sands and Disappearing Sands Beach Park, is typically packed nearly every day with visitors and residents alike. Closing parks and beaches and canceling the Ironman World Championship are among remedies being considered by Mayor Mitch Roth as the administration works to tamp back a surging coronavirus pandemic on the island. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)

Closing parks and beaches and canceling the Ironman World Championship are among measures being considered by Mayor Mitch Roth as the administration works to tamp down a surging coronavirus pandemic on the island.

“Right now our numbers are skyrocketing. It’s a shame because we as a county have been doing a great job — I’m not talking about the government — I’m talking about the people in the community doing a great job,” Roth told County Council members Tuesday. “But we let down our guards — I let down my guard.”

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“It’s not time to be assessing blame,” Roth added. “We need to get together as a community and we need to do the right thing.”

The administration is working on revising its emergency rules to submit to Gov. David Ige for approval. It’s likely to include a return to the restriction of gatherings at parks and beaches that allows people to traverse the parks only to get to the ocean to surf, swim or fish but not to gather or sit on the beach.

The changes come as the island, just like the state, experiences a surge of cases more than double experienced during what was thought to be the height of the pandemic last fall. The virus has mutated and the current variant, known as the delta variant, is much more contagious than the original virus.

With 84 additional cases reported Tuesday, the Big Island now has 1,436 active cases, with 31 hospitalized, straining health-care facilities and filling ICUs. The positivity rate is at 7.4% of those tested and only 58% of the population has been vaccinated.

The administration is also mulling options for more testing at the airports, an increase in citations instead of arrests and adding extra patrols to spot violators, officials said.

“As a health question, I think we’re at the point where we have to consider action,” said Steve Bader, the mayor’s liaison with the Civil Defense Agency. “Do we pause, shut down, our county facilities for a short time? … We’re kind of at that point right now.”

No decisions have been made on shutdowns, county officials said. Administrators are in the middle of the planning stages, with real-time decisions aimed at dealing with a moving target. Any changes would have to be approved by the governor.

Bader said the situation is different now from the shutdowns earlier in the pandemic because at that time, the economy was also shut down and tourism was slight, if not nonexistent. Now, with more than 3,000 domestic passengers arriving at the Big Island airports daily, a balance has to be struck. Last year this time, about 100 passengers landed in a typical day, according to data provided by the state Department of Business, Economic Development &Tourism.

“We as a county are not in position to just lock ourselves down as we were a year, a year and a half ago,” he said. “The conditions are different.”

Corporation Counsel Betsy Strance, who heads the administration’s COVID-19 rules committee, tried to respond to Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz’s questions about why her children might not be able to get out in the open air and enjoy a jungle gym. One of the main problems, Strance said, is that people are not physically distancing and they’re “lining up like sardines on the beaches.”

She said county resources are stretched too thin to enforce outdoor gatherings.

“The county is having to divert some of its resources,” Strance said. “Part of the problem with some of the beaches and parks is, it’s not possible to enforce the rules that we have, so if we can’t enforce the rules that we have and if we can’t enforce, then do we close down? … We know there will be effects on us closing down the parks and beaches.”

Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas asked the administration to consider policies that create “equitable limitations for residents and visitors.” Many of her constituents feel residents have suffered from crowded beaches and restaurants, while their activities are limited, she said.

As far as the Ironman World Championship, currently set for Oct. 9, Roth said he’s in discussions with officials and a decision should be coming soon.

“Unfortunately, it doesn’t look too positive for Ironman this year,” Roth said. “The question with Ironman is what do you do with all the people who come to spectate. … I would love to see the Ironman happen and I also realize that it’s something that helps our community, but we’re also concerned for the quick cause of the spread.”

Diana Bertsch, senior vice president for World Championship Events and event director for the Ironman, said the organization is closely monitoring the situation.

“Irronman has been a part of the West Hawaii community for nearly 40 years. This is our community, our home, our ohana,” Bertsch said in a statement. “We are in daily communication with county and state officials and other important constituents regarding the 2021 Ironman World Championship. We are committed to the best interest of this community, and will act accordingly.”

Almost two dozen people testified at the meeting, almost all of them critical of the government’s efforts to stem the coronavirus tide. Many derided the science behind COVID-19 tests, masks and vaccinations, expressing their views that there is no pandemic at all, or if there is, the bodies’ natural immune systems will keep people healthy.

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Council members who have personally experienced or witnessed losses to coronavirus were dubious about what seemed to be an organized group of testifiers, not all of whom live on the island. Several council members turned emotional as they described how some people suffered from the illness and some died.

“I view this as a threat to humanity, plain and simple,” said Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung, who’d requested the update.

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