Hawaii Updates: 19 New Cases; State Epidemiologist Says Hawaii Not Ready To Reopen

Jul 16, 2020

Updated 7/16/20 at 12:10 p.m.

Where we stand

The Hawai’i Health Department reported 19 new cases of COVID-19 today. Sixteen cases are on Oahu, and three cases are pending. The number of deaths remains at 22.

The state case total now stands at 1,311. Oahu has 1,002 cases, Maui County has 135, Hawai’i County has 107, and Kauai County has 43. There are 21 residents who were diagnosed out of state. As of Tuesday afternoon, 31 were hospitalized. Some 975 people have been released from isolation.

State Epidemiologist says Hawaii is not ready for reopening

State Epidemiologist Sarah Park says Hawaii is not ready to reopen to more visitors. Park gave that blunt assessment to a state Senate committee yesterday based on the recent surge in COVID-19 cases

"From my perspective -- we're not ready as a community. It's not about whether Department of Health is ready or these programs are ready. Our community is not ready. To me, until our community shows we can maintain safe practices, I don't think we're ready," she said.

Park's comments follows a recent surge in coronavirus cases in the state. On Saturday, the state saw its highest number of daily cases with 42 infections. The one-day case counts have not dropped below 20 since that record was set.

The spike in cases is one reason that Gov. David Ige delayed easing trans-Pacific travel restrictions by a month. Under the plan, starting Sept. 1, passengers can avoid the mandatory 14-day quarantine if they test negative for the virus prior to their flight to the islands. 

Most of the recent coronavirus cases have been the result of community spread rather than travel-related. Clusters have developed after household parties, business training and travel, gym classes and, most concerning, in elderly care homes and institutions like the Hawaii State Hospital.

Oahu has been hardest hit among the counties, with its total case count edging toward 1,000. Earlier this month, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell imposed stricter rules on wearing face masks and this week announced additional enforcement against bars that fail to mantain social distancing and other safety rules.

Caldwell again criticized the Department of Health this week for its contact tracking efforts, saying the workforce of contact tracers is too small and not adequate should there be a major surge in COVID-19 cases.

Park told the senators that the department is hiring and training more contact tracers but the focus shouldn’t be on contact tracing or testing, but rather on whether the community is abiding by the measures to reduce the spread of the virus.

She said if people maintain safe practices, the case numbers can come down and Hawaii can reopen.

Both she and Health Director Bruce Anderson have stressed the need for residents keep their guard up. They urge residents to continue to wear face masks, maintain social distances, and practice good hygiene such as frequent handwashing.

Preparations are continuing for the Sept. 1 reopening to more out-of-state visitors. As part of the transition, state Attorney General Clare Connors said on Aug. 1, all trans-Pacific travelers will need to fill out the health and travel form now used by interisland passengers.

She said the state is also working on arrangements with hotels that meet certain standards where visitors could quarantine. 

--HPR's Sandee Oshiro

Honolulu Liquor Commission citing bars for violating safety rules

About a dozen Honolulu bars have received citations from the Liquor Commission and roughly the same number have been warned for failing to follow COVID-19 safety guidelines in the last month.

The bars are facing ever-stricter enforcement. Liquor inspectors and Honolulu police can now shut down an establishment for 24 hours if it violates the rules, such as for face masks and social distancing, after receiving warnings or citations.

Commission chief investigator Peter Nakagawa told a city council committee yesterday that the citations already bring penalties. He said he hopes there won’t also be a need to shut down the bars.

"I really can’t say what the commission itself will levy as fines or punishment to violators. But I would hope that a licensee would not want to risk their ability to earn an income for the short period of time. But we have to realize that our licensees are hurting out there with these closures. A lot of businesses are struggling, and we have to keep that in mind, too, because they’re human."

Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s latest emergency order this week also closed alcohol service at midnight for the bars and cabarets. The state further announced it will issue red placards to bars and restaurants that fail to maintain safety measures,

--HPR's Casey Harlow

City vacant property tax proposal advancing

A bill to tax vacant properties in Honolulu is moving forward at the City Council.

Bill 69 was introduced as a way to address Oahu’s housing shortage by discouraging vacant properties.

It would create a new tax category for residential properties owned by those living outside of the state who use them as seasonal homes or investments.

The council’s Budget Committee discussed the bill yesterday. While the council and Caldwell administration support the measure, there are issues.

"We have concerns about definition, application process, how to filter unoccupied units versus occupied, and just the sheer volume," said Steven Takara with the city’s Budget and Fiscal Services Real Property Division.

"We have about 100,000 non-homeowner properties that is probably subject to this. And that weeding out or opting out or opting in or deciding which properties falls into this classification is a big concern."

Vancouver, British Columbia and Washington, D.C., where the housing shortage is also acute, have implemented similar measures to discourage vacant homes.

--HPR's Casey Harlow

One Kauai visitor, one resident arrested in quarantine cases

Kauai police say two men violated the state’s mandatory 14-day quarantine order, one a visitor and the other a returning resident.

John Shiffler, 51, of Salt Lake City, Utah was arrested Tuesday night at the Lihue Airport after they say he refused to comply with the quarantine requirement. 

Police also arrested Andrew Denny, 40, of Wailua on Wednesday morning. According to preliminary reports from police, Denny spent a month in Florida and other areas of the Mainland before returning to Kauai on July 4. 

Police received reports that he was not abiding by the 14-day quarantine order and was seen at various locations around Kauai. 

The men were given a medical evaluation at Wilcox Hospital before taken to the police detention center. Both were being held on $1,000 bail.

KPD reported making 46 arrests for violations of the 14-day quarantine emergency rules since the order took effect. Those violating the quarantine face up to one year in jail and/or up to $5,000 in fines.

Returning residents outpacing visitor arrivals

The Hawaii Tourism Authority reported 2,307 arrived in the islands on Tuesday, including 410 visitors and 757 returning residents. Both visitors and returning residents are subject to the mandatory 14-day quarantine.

Others arriving Tuesday at state airports included 204 crew members, 184 transit travelers, 185 military, 105 people exempt from quarantine, and 88 who say they are relocating to Hawaii.

The state has delayed plans to allow out-of-state travelers who test negative for COVID-19 before they take their flight to Hawaii to skip the quarantine. Instead of Aug. 1, that program will launch starting Sept. 1.

Increasing numbers of Hawaii residents are traveling and returning to the islands, although Gov. David Ige has recommended against out-of-state travel at this time because of the surge in COVID-19 cases on the Mainland. Popular destinations for Hawaii residents like California, Arizona and Nevada have all seen sharp increases in virus cases.

On Monday, 991 residents returned compared to 467 visitors. 

This is a developing story. Please check back for upates. Editor's note: We’d like to hear how you’re coping with the latest COVID-19 developments and the state's phased reopening. You can call our talkback line at 808-792-8217. Or e-mail us at talkback@hawaiipublicradio.org.