Kauaʻi Reopening: Health First, Tourists Later

May 15, 2020

Kauaʻi 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 Kauaʻi residents get to engage in beach activities that have been banned for nearly two months. 

“Theyʻve been enjoying the quiet number of people at the beaches, but theyʻve got their sleeves rolled up,” says Dr. Monty Downs, president of the Kauaʻi Lifeguards Association, referring to his members.

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

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

Kauaʻi 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 Hanapēpēʻs Talk Story Bookstore, says heʻs made little to no income the past two months. He worries the visitor quarantine mandate is hurting sales.  

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

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

“Specialty retail kind of lends itself to limited anyways,” says Dillberg. “Itʻs not like weʻre Wal-Mart or something where thereʻs, 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 arenʻt working.

“If as many restaurants are going to close on the island as theyʻre 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 itʻs inevitable that weʻll have a bump in COVID cases.” 

And as confident as he is in Kauaʻiʻs public health infrastructure, Downs says he canʻt guarantee the island wonʻt be overwhelmed.