Kauai Mayor on pandemic: “We had to do some unique, out-of-the-box creative solutions to address our challenges”

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The island of Kauai boasts more beaches than any other Hawaiian Island, something officials kept in mind when making decisions to keep the “Garden Isle” free of the coronavirus. 

“We had to do some pretty unique out-of-the box creative solutions to address our challenges and problems,” said Mayor Derek Kawakami. 

Unique, like a beach park user fee. 

“I initially proposed it to be $5,000,” he revealed. “Then our attorneys came back and said: ‘Mayor, you absolutely cannot charge $5,000.’” 

Kawakami explained, “We’re really trying to discourage visitors from sight-seeing and being on the beach. Here I am telling all of our people that live here: ‘Hey stay home. If you’re essential, go work and go home, you cannot hang on the beach.’ We’re trying to avoid conflict as well. What would our people feel if they’re seeing visitors on the beach and they’re not allowed to?”

He ended up agreeing to a more reasonable fee: $5 to access the beach, limited to 100 permits. 

Kawakami also implemented an island-wide curfew. Residents could not leave their homes from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. The curfew was lifted in May. 

He says the emergency measures resulted in fewer 911 calls and less visits to the emergency room. 

For 10 weeks, there were no new cases of coronavirus on the Garden Isle— until recently.

The state Department of Health confirmed a household cluster of cases, bringing the statewide total to 29. 

By comparison, Hawaii island had 85 cases since the pandemic began. Maui County (including the islands of Moloka’i and Lana’i) reported 122. Oahu, the most densely populated island, has had 568 cases. 

Health experts think the recent spike in cases is because residents are relaxing safe practices, such as social distancing or frequent hand-washing. 

Meanwhile, Kawakami says he and his team are constantly making choices to keep Kauai’s 72,000 residents safe. 

“A lot of our decision making was based on instinct. There was so much information we didn’t have. We tried to look at other countries where the pandemic hit, we observed what those leaders were saying. We followed that, took that model and put it all together.” 

But with restrictions loosening across the islands, the lifting of the state’s mandatory 14-day inter island quarantine has some Kauai folks worried.

“We were so protected and had no new cases for 2 months. I am dreading opening the island up to inter island travel,” said resident J Robertson.

“I know there are other incidents (of COVID-19) on other islands. If people visit us, they may bring it with them. We have no sure guarantee it won’t happen. But it is good to see us open up, we have to face reality. I would love to have family visit from mainland. We have to take a first step. Doesn’t mean I’m in love with it, but let’s try it, and see how we do.” 

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