HANA, Hawaii (KHON2) — The Road to Hana reopened to the public on Thursday, July 16.
In April, Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino and east Maui leaders asked Governor David Ige to shut down portions of Hana Highway and Piilani Highways from Honopou Road to Ulupalakua.
For three months, the rural area was blocked off to residents only.
“We felt it necessary we keep them safe and keep outside people from going in that we didn’t know who were COVID-19 positive,” said Rep. Lynn DeCoite (D) – Haiku, Hana, Nahiku, Molokai.
“We just have Hana Health and they’re not equipped to deal with anybody that has to go on a ventilator,” she added.
The east Maui region has one healthcare facility, Hana Health, and very limited resources.
“We do not have the medical infrastructure to even handle one case and so it’s very important we maintain the isolation of east Maui just like we did in other parts of my district on Molokai and Lanai,” said Senate Majority Leader J Kalani English (D) Haiku, Hana, East Maui, Lanai.
There are roughly 6,000 residents who live within the area that was shut down.
Sen. English, a Hana native, said that pre-COVID-19, about 15,000 cars would drive the Road to Hana daily.
During the closure he said residents were able to enjoy their home once again without over-crowding, and natural resources flourished.
“I haven’t seen it like this since the 70s where it’s one or two cars a day passing your house opposed to 20,000 a day,” said English.
“It was a time of great reflection for the region,” he said. “I think what came out of this is that we do not want to return to what it was.”
Sen. English said many tourist surveys revealed most visitors don’t enjoy the Road to Hana.
“It’s too crowded, there’s too many people. It took too long, there’s nothing at the end, so the tourists weren’t satisfied and the local people–us–were not satisfied either because we have too many people on the road,” English said.
He said he’s working on a traffic management program that could possibly help and limit how many cars drive through daily.
“We can manage. We cannot tell people they cannot go, but we can certainly manage the experience, and manage the way the flow of traffic so it doesn’t get as congested as it used to,” Sen. English explained.
He said the program would be similar to what Kauai did with Haena State Park.
“In fact, we’re starting off with Waianapanapa very soon and going to a reservation system and a resource management system that will work with all of us, and from there we’re talking to Haleakala National Park about maybe having them do a reservation system there (Oheo, Seven Sacred Pools) and other areas doing it and eventually the whole east side.”
“It’s a very ambitious project but the one common denominator that we can all generally agree on the east side is we do not want to return it to what it was,” Sen. English reiterated.
He said the traffic management program will help create a balance for everyone.
“When you’re overrun, you just get tired,” he said. “So, I think putting in this type of system will actually create more contentment and happiness for the residents as well as for our visitors.”
KHON2 asked Sen. English what number he had in mind in terms of reservations but he said it was hard to say given the fact there aren’t many tourists on Maui.
“With that said, this is when we can do the hard reset and start building something that works,” he said. “I think first it will be a number of years before we reach those numbers again but, in the meantime, we can put in the systems.”
Since the rural area re-opened on Thursday, Hana residents say traffic has picked up. And while some aren’t happy the highway is open, others say there are other concerns to worry about it.
“You have two batches of residents,” explained Hana resident Kawika Kaina. “Some of them are really concerned about COVID and how we keep the community protected, and the others are attacking a long-standing bold issue of how do we manage the traffic coming in?”
“I think those lines are kind-of getting crossed where there’s some people out there who are trying to do a community roadblock, but they’re not really concerned about COVID, they just want to stop people from coming into Hana,” he explained.
He said businesses have been struggling and that Hana relies more on tourism then many thought. “I mean most of the businesses out here are pretty dependent on the traffic coming through, and we know eventually that you have to let folks in.”
He said lack of healthcare is still a concern to many residents.
“We’ve got the same hospital, it’s the same reaction time, they’ll call the same air ambulance, so even though COVID is still going on, they haven’t really implemented any new emergency protocols should something happen out here,” Kaina said.
“The road closure was very good in that it created a protective bubble over Hana, but during that time we sat in that bubble nothing was done to better prepare the community,” he continued.
He said the current medical services can barely service the 6,000 residents in the rural area.
“When you add in the traffic, it just stretches that resource out a little more thin,” Kaina said.
He said a mobile clinic would be nice to have in the community.
“How do we beef up emergency services so that if something does happen, we’re not scrambling and trying to find resources?” he asked.
He explained the following scenario: “If a visitor comes in and tries to go to Red Sand and gets hurt, he pulls away the only ambulance, the only fire truck, and the only air evac that we got out here. Then a kupuna gets hurt at the same time, now they’re having to wait and so that’s kind-of what everybody’s concerned about is whoa wait a minute, it’s the same way it was when we closed.”
Although the highway is open again, the east Maui community is asking people to only go to Hana if it’s necessary.
“We’re asking people to really think about going to the east side at this time. We’re still in the middle of the pandemic,” explained English.
“We’re asking people that live on Maui to really consider why they would go to Hana at this point and if they’re going out to visit then be very mindful, wear masks, keep social distancing and if they’re feeling sick, even a little bit sick, get home as quick as you can but if you’re in Hana we do not have the ability to care for you,” he continued.