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Mayor seeks to maintain limited access to Hana

Hana Highway slated to reopen to public traffic Wednesday

MICHAEL VICTORINO – Seeks delay in opening access

Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino on Monday sent a letter to Gov. David Ige requesting Hana Highway be kept blocked to the general public while allowing East Maui residents through until July 15 to provide time to establish a plan to protect the remote community from COVID-19.

The state Department of Transportation announced Thursday the full reopening of Hana Highway on Wednesday. Only residents, delivery trucks and emergency vehicles have been allowed through roadblocks on the highway near Twin Falls and at Ulupalakua Ranch since March 16.

“Our East Maui residents have expressed their deep concerns regarding the limited medical and public safety resources available to this isolated community,” Victorino wrote. “Without a 24-hour medical facility and limited access to emergency services, increasing public access to this remote area may further limit and hinder these services.”

Early Monday afternoon, Jodi Leong, the governor’s press secretary, said Ige had not yet seen Victorino’s request. While the state cannot arbitrarily close the highway, Leong said the governor would wait to see exactly what Victorino is requesting.

State Sen. J. Kalani English held a Zoom meeting Sunday night with residents of the East Maui community to discuss the road issue as well as a management plan for tourists. The winding road from Central to East Maui with its bridges and waterfalls has become a major visitor attraction.

J. KALANI ENGLISH – Would rather see road closed

Residents said Sunday that they are fearful of the virus coming to their community, especially when trans-Pacific travel opens up Aug. 1 — without a 14-day quarantine for those who test negative for COVID-19 prior to travel. State officials admit the testing requirement is not a cure-all but will minimize the coronavirus risk.

On Sunday, there were two trans-Pacific flights to Maui, which brought a total of 18 visitors and five people planning to relocate here, along with 26 returning residents, the Hawaii Tourism Authority said Monday.

English, a Hana resident, said Sunday at the meeting that access to East Maui has been limited primarily to residents since March 16 due to the state Department of Transportation needing to do emergency repairs on Hana Highway as well as protecting the residents of the isolated area when COVID-19 cases were on the rise.

Currently, checkpoints near Twin Falls on Hana Highway and at Ulupalakua Ranch along Piilani Highway are manned by National Guardsmen and Maui police.

English said that he, too, would rather see the road remain closed to nonresidents, but that he did not have full control of the situation. There are people who want the highway reopened, added the lawmaker, whose district includes East Maui.

Both English and state Transportation Deputy Director for Highways Ed Sniffen, who was also on the meeting, said that Hana Highway is maintained by public funds and therefore must be available for use by everyone.

On the video meeting Sunday night, Victorino said he would like to keep the checkpoint up at Ulupalakua Ranch on Piilani Highway. While Hana Highway is a state road, Piilani Highway is a county road.

But that will be contingent on Ige keeping the checkpoint up on Hana Highway, he said.

The mayor said at his daily news conference Monday that he would like to keep the restricted travel on the roads in place until July 15 with National Guard and Maui police manning the checkpoints.

While supporting the extension of the checkpoints, Victorino said that “we have to reopen sooner or later.” He sought more time for government and community leaders to work on a reservation and management system for the area.

Residents expressed worry, especially kupuna concerned about COVID-19 spreading in Hana. They noted the limited health resources and more than 50-mile drive by car or ambulance if someone had an emergency.

Others questioned the economic benefit to reopening the road and whether visitors would obey health and safety guidelines.

English said that everyone should be mindful of COVID-19 and protect one another by wearing a mask, social distancing or staying at home for the frail and vulnerable.

He said he has told families and friends from outside Hana to wait a while before visiting loved ones in Hana.

Throughout the Sunday meeting, English said he has heard the need for more medical resources and urged the public to support those who have been trying for years to expand medical access there.

He added that even when nonresidents arrive in Hana, businesses there can employ their own safety measures and inform visitors of safety protocols.

English said he knows that nonresidents have made their way into the community since the road restrictions were put in place. Counterfeit resident passes have been made, and legal passes have been handed out to friends and families outside of the area.

English said he, state Rep. Lynn DeCoite, whose district includes East Maui, Victorino and County Council Member Shane Sinenci, whose residency seat is East Maui, will continue to monitor the situation.

And if there is a spike in coronavirus cases, they can request again to close the road, he said.

In preparing for the reopening of the road, Victorino said that he will be giving five emergency bridge ventilators to East Maui.

“We will do everything possible for the people of East Maui,” Victorino said.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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