Surge in East Hawaii cases leads to greater enforcement

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald A car drives by two lines of cars that are waiting to be tested for COVID-19 at Kawananakoa Gym in Keaukaha on Monday.

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Jodi Kauhi fills out paperwork while waiting to be tested for COVID-19 in her car in Keaukaha on Monday.

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald People are tested for COVID-19 in their cars at Kawananakoa Gym in Keaukaha on Monday.

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Hundreds of people are lined up to be tested for COVID-19 in Keaukaha on Monday. The drive-through site was free for anyone wanting a test.

The county’s Civil Defense chief said Monday he and his staff are “hearing that people are almost rebelling” against emergency measures put in place to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

“They’re taking off their face masks, and they’re not wanting to (social distance) anymore,” Talmadge Magno, Hawaii County Civil Defense administrator said. “But this is the worst numbers that we’ve had, and this is when we need people to come together, to be responsible for themselves, their families (and) their neighbors.

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“I don’t understand this behavior.”

Since Saturday, the Big Island has had at least 33 new COVID-19 cases, many of them in East Hawaii.

As of Monday, Ka ‘Umeke Ka‘eo Hawaiian Immersion Public Charter School in Keaukaha, which confirmed eight cases last week among employees, had seven active cases and no new confirmed cases, according to a letter posted on the school’s website.

“The Department of Health continues to monitor the active cases at Ka ‘Umeke Ka‘eo and ongoing testing and contact tracing of potentially impacted employees is occurring,” Po‘okumu Nohea Nahale-a wrote in the letter.

The school has closed all its sites until further notice.

COVID-19 testing was done Monday at Kawanakoa Gym in Keaukaha, a joint effort by Premier Medical Group, Hawaii County Civil Defense and Department of Parks and Recreation, and the Keaukaha Community Association.

Scores of cars lined up to get to the gym, and police were called to direct traffic. At least one person said some waiting to be tested had to be turned away when the clinic ended at 1 p.m.

“The outbreak at the charter school … was when the community decided to keep the community safe, our children and kupuna, that we needed this testing in our community,” said Patrick Kahawaiolaa, president of Keaukaha Community Association. “Because a lot of the kupuna can’t drive out of Keaukaha to get tested.”

In its Sunday morning message, Civil Defense expressed concern Big Island community spread of the virus might be associated with “Hilo-based gatherings where people failed to practice preventive measures.”

The message specifically mentioned a “huge gathering of remembrance recently held in East Hawaii” — an apparent reference to a celebration of life on July 25 for Kaulana Pakele, lead singer of the popular band Mana‘o Company.

The Hilo-born entertainer died May 25 at age 47 after apparently drowning at Makaha Beach Park on Oahu’s leeward coast.

Hundreds gathered to honor the Hilo-born entertainer, and social media videos showed few wearing masks and almost no one social distancing. There was a large tent with an entertainment stage and a food-service line. Video showed the food handlers wearing masks.

Among those in attendance was state Sen. Kai Kahele, the Democratic nominee for the 2nd Congressional District U.S. House seat being vacated by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Kahele also posed on a video with a group of men, none of them social distancing or wearing masks over their noses and mouths.

Kahele didn’t immediately return a call Monday seeking comment.

Magno and Hawaii Police Chief Paul Ferreira said they didn’t know about the gathering until after the fact.

“I’m sure a lot of people saw it. I saw the YouTube footage and stuff, definitely front and center,” said Magno, who said there’s been “a number of memorial services on both sides of the island, but more on this side.”

Magno said there were more than the 100 people allowed at that time for an outdoor gathering. That number has since been reduced to 10 by Mayor Harry Kim in response to the recent surge in cases.

Ferreira said he didn’t know about Pakele’s celebration “until the mayor’s office asked about it about a week ago.”

Recent Civil Defense messages, including Monday’s, referred to police “stepping up their enforcement of the prevention policies.”

“If we see large groups or we get calls reporting large groups, police will be contacting them, making sure folks are educated as to what the current regulation or rule is stating, and looking for compliance,” Magno said.

Ferreira said police “have been getting a lot of calls.”

“Naturally, as the numbers go up, people will call even more,” Ferreira said. “They call our dispatch center saying they saw this person out without a mask or they saw a gathering. In areas like Hilo and Kona, where it’s busy all the time, regardless, we have a difficult time responding, so we’re … bringing in guys on overtime, just to cover those areas.

“Our primary thing — and this has been countywide — has been education before you start citing or arresting. But we have cited people, and we have arrested people for noncompliance.”

“I know we’ve been at it a long time already, almost six months, and it gets tiresome,” added Magno. “But this is worse than the flu — this is something that we’ve got to … hang tough with. That’s the only way we’re going to get through it. So we’ve really got to impress upon people to follow the preventive measures.

“This is not life as normal. We may never again know life as it was before coronavirus.”

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Reporter Stephanie Salmons contributed to this story.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.