HANAPEPE >> The homeless here on the North Island of Hawaii received an unusual invitation last year: come and set up camp on a spectacular beach, with showers, toilets and electricity, and meals delivered by the food bank local.
The offer was part of an aggressive plan by Kauai officials to contain the coronavirus.
Public campgrounds were virtually deserted as tourism collapsed under the weight of the pandemic and strict quarantine rules. Letting a few hundred people stay in five designated parks has reduced the risk of them wandering the island, catching the virus and becoming vectors.
“I fall asleep to the sound of the waves,” said Gary Morris, 44, a veteran who has found a supportive community in Salt Pond Beach Park on the south coast. “People here are like family. “
The plan worked. In Kauai, 72,000 residents, COVID-19 has killed a total of two people – a death rate 60 times lower than the nation’s.
There have only been 320 infections – and the homeless population has remained safe. With half of its population fully vaccinated, Kauai is well ahead of the rest of Hawaii and the nation, which has a rate of 41%. .
But now the island faces a new challenge: how to rebuild its economy. Hawaii, dependent on tourism, has the highest unemployment rate in the country and the situation is particularly difficult in Kauai.
Food banks are working overtime. Homelessness appears to be on the rise. The highway that surrounds much of the island passes barricaded shops and restaurants.
Among the victims is the family-owned Ono restaurant, which has served spam and eggs, shaving ice and other Hawaiian dishes for 40 years.
“It was too difficult to continue,” owner Kenny Ishii said in February, announcing on YouTube that after months in limbo he was abandoning his plan to reopen.
“Three hurricanes were easy compared to this one,” he said.
As a string of islands, Hawaii had an intrinsic advantage over other American states when it came to combating the pandemic: strict control of its borders.
Initially, the state imposed a 14-day quarantine period on anyone arriving on the islands and arrested and jailed offenders. Authorities later backed down, allowing travelers to bypass quarantine by providing negative results from approved coronavirus tests taken within three days of leaving for Hawaii.
Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami urged the state to let him impose additional demands. Kauai is the least developed of Hawaii’s four main islands, and he argued that if the virus took off, its three hospitals would be overwhelmed – they only had 20 intensive care beds.
“We are literally alone in the middle of the ocean in these types of situations,” Kawakami said in an interview with his office in Lihue, the county seat.
Last December, after Hawaii Governor David Ige refused his requests, the mayor withdrew from the state system, reverting to mandatory quarantines.
The decision extended Kauai’s long-standing reputation for an independent spirit. Two centuries ago, the island was the last to submit to the reign of the King of Hawaii, and in 2007, surfboard protesters thwarted plans for a car ferry from Oahu.
Kawakami said he felt extremely responsible to voters he knew for climbing the ranks of the family grocery chain.
“For us, the numbers of cases are not numbers,” he said. “These are real people with names that we grew up with.”
The strict rules made Kauai a successful public health success story, but alienated many in the business community. The unemployment rate, which had hovered around 20% all last summer, had finally started to drop and restrictions appeared to be holding back the economic recovery.
In the first three months of this year, visitor numbers are down 93% from the same time in 2020 – a much larger drop than in Maui or the Big Island.
“What the mayor did was super unwarranted as the rest of the state was open and doing fine,” said charter fisherman Lance Keener.
He and his wife had incurred a debt of $ 120,000 to stay in business: “We were just about at the end of our funds and we wanted to work. “
Kauai District Health Officer Dr Janet Berreman defended the mayor against his critics.
“If you have out of control disease rates, people won’t patronize businesses, tourists won’t come and workers won’t show up,” she said in an interview.
In a compromise in January, Kawakami instituted a unique system to make the quarantine much shorter and a bit more fun.
Sections of six hotels have become “resort bubbles”. Visitors and residents who provided evidence of negative tests could stay three days – wearing electronic tracking bracelets – and then leave after testing negative again.
National Guard law enforcement troops at Lihue Airport showed no mercy.
Dustin and Cindy Rocksvold – Californian vacationers who ignored the requirement to test negative before boarding – said in an interview that they were forced to return to Honolulu and get away from it all. get tested before coming back, an overnight mishap of $ 910.
Once again, Kauai’s strategy worked and the island went on for days without a new confirmed case of the coronavirus. But the economy was struggling.
Residents missed out on facilities like the Kukui Grove Cinema, whose closure left the island without a cinema.
“I kissed my first French girlfriend right there,” said longtime resident Todd Jebens, 45, pointing to the empty parking lot. “I took my son to see all the ‘Star Wars’ movies. I can still smell the popcorn as I walk by.
Unemployment fell to 10% as more tourists arrived in Kauai. But visitor numbers are not expected to return to pre-pandemic levels for at least two years, according to a forecast from the University of Hawaii’s Economic Research Organization.
One factor limiting the recovery in tourism is a severe shortage of rental cars. Last year, rental companies across the state attempted to cover the losses by selling vehicles.
With rental prices hitting $ 700 a day, desperate tourists have resorted to driving U-Haul trucks. Some potential visitors have canceled their trips.
In early April, Kauai joined the state system, allowing travelers to avoid quarantine with just one negative pre-flight test.
More than 100 people have since tested positive for the virus – the island’s worst outbreak. After aggressive contact tracing identified several hundred people for quarantine, the island is back to about half a dozen new cases per week.
Unlike Texas, Florida, and other states that have banned government-imposed “vaccine passports,” Hawaii has begun allowing people showing proof of vaccination to bypass testing and quarantine requirements when they travel between the islands.
But the pictures must have been given to Hawaii. For now, the inability of authorities to verify vaccinations given on the mainland or abroad has prevented them from expanding the system to include people arriving from the other side of the Pacific.
Even before the pandemic, life for many in Kauai was getting more difficult. Wealthy foreigners competed with each other to buy houses, driving up house prices and rents.
The disparities have only grown.
After the brief drop in house prices, more mainland residents have plunged into the real estate market, often buying blind to relocate to the island to work remotely.
Hannah Sirois, a real estate agent from Kauai, said the perception of security against the virus heightened the appeal of the surfing mecca known for its gentle rains, bright sunbeams and beautiful rainbows.
“This island is so green,” she said, “and the people trapped on the mainland wanted renewal, life and peace and everything green is associated with.”
Studios made from carports are now renting for over $ 1,000 a month. The median selling price of a single-family home in Kauai exceeded $ 1 million in January, up 30% from the same month last year, widening the gap between rich and poor.
“I can walk in one direction past mansions that I can’t even see because of doors, plants and things that have completely blocked my view,” County Council member Felicia Cowden said. “And I can walk the other way through houses that have six or eight cars parked in front of them, because that’s the number of working adults crammed into a single family unit.”
Back in Salt Pond Beach Park, several dozen occupants maintain a tidy campsite, with tents pitched under palm trees and stacked toys for the children.
But campers are more and more anxious. They have until June 30 to leave so the park can reopen to the public.
Morris, the combat veteran, said he has come to love Hawaii since arriving from California five years ago.
“But the only thing I’ll never have here,” he said, “is a place to live.”