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Kaua?i Reopening: Health First, Tourists Later

Ku?uwehi Hiraishi
Kaua?i relaxes COVID-19 rules at beaches across the island as part of a phased-in reopening under the pandemic."

Kaua?i County today is reopening its beaches for casual use – like a family picnic or sunbathing – all with social distancing measures in place. The island continues to carefully reopen under the COVID-19 pandemic, a process that began a week ago with retailers getting back to business. 

County lifeguards are ready for an influx of beachgoers as Kaua?i residents get to engage in beach activities that have been banned for nearly two months. 

“They?ve been enjoying the quiet number of people at the beaches, but they?ve got their sleeves rolled up,” says Dr. Monty Downs, president of the Kaua?i Lifeguards Association, referring to his members.

Downs is also an emergency room doctor at the Wilcox Medical Center. He?s confident the island?s health care system is prepared with all the supplies, testing and contact tracing necessary for a phased-in reopening.

“We?re A-plus COVID containment so far, and F-minus on economic disaster,” says Downs.

Kaua?i has not had a new case of COVID-19 in over a month, which gave the county some leeway in relaxing coronavirus-related closures.

Ed Justus, owner of Hanap?p??s Talk Story Bookstore, says he?s made little to no income the past two months. He worries the visitor quarantine mandate is hurting sales.  

“It definitely reduced our business by, I?d say, 90 percent,” says Justus. “We?re thankful for residents that are coming in and buying, so it's helping us get by but it?s definitely very tight.” 

Kalaheo-based surf boutique Aloha Xchng reopened last Saturday. Jamie Dillberg, one of the store?s founders, says social distancing guidelines have been fairly easy to implement.

“Specialty retail kind of lends itself to limited anyways,” says Dillberg. “It?s not like we?re Wal-Mart or something where there?s, you know, 20 people walking in the store at once.” 

Even without tourists, Dillberg and his business partners Sparki Metzger and Ashley Johson still have local customers – but a growing number aren?t working.

“If as many restaurants are going to close on the island as they?re talking about and having hotels impacted that way...,” says Dillberg, “...the guy who comes in to buy a new surfboard and he waits tables at the Hyatt at night – if that is gone, then that will impact us hugely.” 

Downs, the emergency room doctor, says figuring out a way to allow visitors back in to Kaua‘i will be key to economic recovery. But it comes with a risk.

“Ideally, every visitor who comes here would get tested before they embark on the flight wherever they come from,” says Downs. “That would be ideal. If we fall short of that ideal, I think it?s inevitable that we?ll have a bump in COVID cases.” 

And as confident as he is in Kaua?i?s public health infrastructure, Downs says he can?t guarantee the island won?t be overwhelmed. 

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