East Maui residents hope restricting traffic on Hana Highway will prevent spread of coronavirus
By Michael Tsai
RYAN BERKOWITZ / SPECIAL TO THE STAR-ADVERTISER / MARCH 25
Hana Highway past Haiku, which is normally packed with tourists in rental cars, was closed by officials to all except East Maui residents as a preventive measure. A homemade sign on the road last week emphasized the point.
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The remote communities of East Maui know all about surviving in isolation; it’s the outsiders who don’t quite get it who draw their concern as residents seek to protect themselves from the spread of COVID-19.
Outside of Oahu, Maui has the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Hawaii, with the number rising almost daily. Residents of Hana, Keanae, Kipahulu and Kaupo are hopeful restricting traffic on Hana Highway, the main artery that connects them to the rest of the island, and Piilani Highway on the leeward side of Haleakala will adequately stanch the flow of tourists to their towns, thereby preventing the introduction of the virus from travel-related sources.
“On a typical day, thousands of rental cars drive the narrow Hana Highway and congregate at lookouts and parks,” said state Sen. J. Kalani English, who along with Rep. Lynn DeCoite proposed the preventative measure. “During this emergency we need to keep the highway open for residents of East Maui, delivery trucks and first responders. We cannot have thousands of tourists from around the world causing traffic and entering closed parks, coming into contact with one another and our residents.
“As a resident of Hana, I know that the majority of our economy in East Maui depends on tourism and that this pandemic is causing a major hardship, but when we’re choosing between saving lives and the economy, health must come first,” English said in a statement released shortly after the local-traffic-only restrictions were announced.
The step has been largely successful, although compliance was initially slow and a smattering of visitors still make their way past the posted signage along the northern stretch of the highway or, more surreptitiously, through the back end abutting national park land.
“The order didn’t come with enforcement, so we have been working with (the state Department of Land and Natural Resources) and the parks to help with this,” said Maui Councilman Shane Sinenci. “Some visitors are cordial and turn around when they see the signs. Some have been bypassing the signs and keep coming in.”
Aware that the vast majority of local cases are related to Hawaii residents who contracted the virus while traveling on the mainland, residents along Hana Highway have taken to educating tourists themselves via homemade signs and direct, occasionally pointed, conversation.
Those who live in the already geographically isolated area have weathered previous shutdowns of the highway due to natural disaster or extended maintenance and repair. In this instance, the inconvenience is offset by a sense of necessary self-preservation. Some even welcome the respite from visitors drawn to the area’s natural attractions and much-publicized rural charm.
“It’s like Hana of yesteryear,” Sinenci observed. “We’ve got our sleepy town back.”
Sinenci said he’s also seen indications that residents are digging in for an extended isolation.
“We went to the dump, and there were a lot of people,” he said. “People are cleaning out their homes and inventorying what they have and what they don’t need as they readjust and redesign their homes to shelter in place.”
The largest of the coastal East Maui towns, Hana has a population of just over 1,200 people spread out over 10.5 square miles. According to the last U.S. census, roughly 10% are over the age of 65 and live alone; more than 8% live below the poverty line. Many are Native Hawaiian.
Sinenci said he is proud of the community’s efforts to make sure its kupuna are well attended, from social media movements to link volunteers to seniors who need help picking up food or medicine, to volunteer-organized efforts to provide packaged meals to those who are homebound.
“Hana is a close-knit community where everyone watches over each other, especially our kupuna, who are most vulnerable,” said longtime Hana resident and community leader Lehua Cosma.
Cosma said she has never seen anything quite like measures being adopted to stop the spread of the coronavirus, which have left her feeling ambivalent.
“It is with heavy heart to see the major impact of the virus taking its toll on our lives,” said Cosma, who noted the cancellation of the annual East Maui Taro Festival, a major event in the area which was to have taken place April 25. “On the positive side, it has brought many families closer and spending quality time together.”
THE HIGHWAY shutdown coupled with state and county stay/work-at-home edicts have already taken a toll on businesses in the area.
The luxury Travaasa Hana resort, the area’s largest employer, suspended operations Thursday, citing “an abundance of caution for the safety and well-being of guests, employees and the community.” The company declined to comment on the status of its employees.
The venerable Hasegawa General Store, a community hub in Hana, remains open despite a drastic reduction in business.
Third-generation owner Neil Hasegawa said he’s trying to think outside the box to keep the store open for the community and to keep his dozen employees on the payroll.
Hasegawa recently established special store hours for kupuna, and on Wednesday introduced a call-ahead service that allows people to order products in advance for pickup in the store’s parking lot.
“Things are so fluid right now,” he said. “We’re just trying to see what our needs are (for workers) and trying to be a service to everybody in the community. That’s what is important now.”
For now the store is maintaining its regular hours, even as its ability to keep its shelves stocked has grown challenging.
“The supply chain is broken,” he said. “We tried ordering multiple brands and multiple sizes of toilet paper and disinfectant wipes, but nothing is coming in. The last week, our grocery order came back with 20 to 30 items out of stock. We just have to go with the flow and be inventive with the products we order and the vendors we go through. I know (the vendors) are low in their warehouses.”
Another blow, for both Hasegawa and the surrounding community, came Tuesday with the announcement that Bank of Hawaii’s Hana branch would be one of 40 locations closed due to coronavirus precautions. On Wednesday, English announced the bank had agreed to keep the Hana branch open.
Hasegawa said closing the only bank in East Maui — Maui Federal Credit Union is still open but works with Bank of Hawaii for many transactions — would have meant that Hana residents would need to drive all the way to Kahului, a four-hour round trip, for simple transactions like making deposits.
“It seems like a knee-jerk reaction from someone on Oahu who doesn’t understand the logistics of Hana,” he said when interviewed before the bank rescinded the closure. “This happens to us all the time. We get left out of the picture. They figure it’s only a small number of people so it doesn’t matter.”
Hasegawa said the current health crisis will likely have a “huge trickle-down economic effect.”
The 95-year-old Kaupo Store, which relied heavily on tourist traffic, closed its doors a week ago with no immediate plans to reopen.
“The visitors weren’t coming through that much,” said owner Linda Domer, “and I didn’t want to touch their dirty money anyway.”
THE REGION’S only clinic is also feeling the effects of the coronavirus restrictions, its own as well as those mandated by the government.
Hana Health, a federally qualified health center and “safety net” provider for the medically underserved, is seeing patients on an appointment-only basis and has turned to telemedicine for many routine patient interactions. Its dental clinic remains open for emergency cases, but mental health services have been temporarily suspended.
Each of the clinic’s 12 staff members is screened before each shift, and patients are being screened before entering the facility.
Executive Director Cheryl Vasconcellos said coronavirus testing is available for those who meet the criteria, with samples forwarded to the Department of Health or private labs. So far, “very few” tests have been administered, she said.
Vasconcellos said about 20% of the clinic’s clientele are over the age of 60, and many more have chronic conditions such as diabetes that put them at high risk for serious complications from the virus.
Like Hasegawa, Vasconcellos said she is doing what she can to maintain full staffing.
“We’re doing everything we can to keep people employed, but depending on how long this lasts, that may not be possible. Right now I’m just trying to cover payroll.”