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Hana and Piilani highways reopen to nonresident traffic

Mayor, residents urge masks, social distance when visiting E. Maui

Maui police officers Emmett Kawahara (foreground) and Sgt. Lance Kaupalolo help staff a checkpoint along Hana Highway in late April. Beginning today, checkpoints along Hana Highway and Piilani Highway are being lifted. MAUI POLICE DEPARTMENT photo

Hana and Piilani highways will reopen to nonresident traffic today, though community members and government leaders said they’d prefer to keep access limited to residents and essential travel, not only to protect from COVID-19 but to ease congestion on the heavily trafficked road.

However, they asked that if visitors and other residents do come to East Maui, that they be mindful, wear masks and sanitize, and also consider holding off nonessential travel when possible.

“Be very careful specifically in the Hana town area at stores — be extremely diligent and wear masks and sanitize well before entering the stores,” Kipahulu resident Theresa Kapaku said via Facebook Messenger on Wednesday. “Our kupuna and keiki shop there.”

Kapaku, who has been active in monitoring vehicle travel to East Maui during the pandemic, asked that people drive responsibly, pull over if there is even one car behind them, clean up after themselves and take nothing from East Maui.

Since March 16, only residents, delivery trucks and emergency vehicles have been allowed through checkpoints on Hana Highway near Twin Falls and on Piilani Highway at Ulupalakua Ranch. The closure allowed the state Department of Transportation to do emergency repairs on Hana Highway and also offered a level of protection to the East Maui community when COVID-19 cases were on the rise.

Maui Police Department and National Guard personnel stop a vehicle on Hana Highway while staffing a checkpoint near Twin Falls in May. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Some East Maui residents carried out enforcement themselves, putting up signs informing drivers of the closure and asking vehicles to turn around. National Guardsmen and Maui police were later stationed at checkpoints along the road to turn drivers away. The Police Department said it hasn’t been involved with the checkpoints since the end of May.

The checkpoints were going to be lifted July 1, but Mayor Michael Victorino asked Gov. David Ige for an extension through July 15.

Victorino said during a news conference Wednesday that not much will change even as the roads reopen, pointing out that not many out-of-state visitors are coming to Maui. On Tuesday, a total of 42 visitors on four trans-Pacific flights came to Maui, according to Hawaii Tourism Authority data.

“Most of the people who want to go out there now (to East Maui) are local residents,” Victorino said.

He said that locals are going out there to visit friends and family, for business purposes or for fishing and ocean activities.

But, he added, “I ask anyone that is going out there to have respect for the land, the aina, for the wai.”

Visitors should minimize contact with residents, wear their masks and practice good hygiene.

State Sen. J. Kalani English said that as a Hana resident, he wishes “we could maintain isolation.”

“Now as a senator looking at the vastness of my district — Upcountry, Haiku, Paia, all the other areas, and Molokai and Lanai — I have to say, all right, this is probably the safest we are going to be (in terms of cases). It’s a good time to open the road.”

With Gov. David Ige postponing the launch of a pretravel testing program that many expected would bring back large numbers of tourists, state and county officials and local communities now have more time to prepare for an increase in people traveling along Hana and Piilani highways.

The pretravel testing plan, which was supposed to launch Aug. 1, would have allowed arriving travelers to bypass the mandatory 14-day quarantine if they could show proof of a negative COVID-19 test. Ige announced this week that he would be pushing back the program to Sept. 1, with cases spiking on the Mainland and the state needing more time to work on the program.

English said that with the roads open, everyone needs to be mindful of what they do. Not only visitors but also residents need to pay attention to where they go and practice safe measures when traveling to Central Maui for errands and shopping, as they could bring the virus back home.

“It’s also the responsibility that us as East Maui residents have to take,” he said.

English acknowledged that he’s heard on social media how some residents may take monitoring of the highways into their own hands now that the checkpoints are being lifted. But, he said, “it’s not a function of ordinary citizens to do that.”

“I understand the fear behind it, but I’m trying not to grow that fear,” English said.

Maui County Council Member Shane Sinenci, who holds the East Maui residency seat, said that “the general consensus of the East Maui Community is sadness to see the road restrictions lifted.”

“Our residents have taken advantage of the quiet and solitude due to the absence of visitor traffic congestion on the two-lane highway, normally seen over the past years,” Sinenci said in an email Wednesday.

“East Maui residents’ main concern is the protection of our elderly population — our kupuna; those whom are most vulnerable to the virus and those with preexisting medical conditions (we have limited medical resources in East Maui),” Sinenci added.

Hana Community Association board member Ipo Mailou said that businesses want the roads to be open, but the community is not ready.

“They are looking toward our government officials to do what is right,” Mailou said.

She added that there is currently no policy or plan in place on how to handle visitors and nonessential traffic.

When announcements came that the roads would reopen, “you could just see the frustration” among residents.

“People are scared someone is going to bring it here,” Mailou said. “Someone’s going to get sick and that is going to spread like wildfire.”

Mailou has kept her mother at home to protect her, and community members have also helped vulnerable residents in East Maui by going shopping for them and doing errands.

English said that a plan to manage tourists and traffic along Hana Highway continues to be in the works. Several online meetings have been held with government leaders, community members and state and county officials regarding the checkpoints and an overall plan for East Maui, which Sinenci said will need to deal with traffic mitigation, trespassing, overcrowded beach parks and limited restroom capacity.

However, it will take some time.

English anticipated that a reservation system for Waianapanapa State Park could be online early next year. The state Board of Land and Natural Resources recently passed rules allowing the process to start at Waianapanapa. Reservation systems for other public facilities could take about a year to put into place.

Residents, meanwhile, are clear on one thing: “We do not want to go back to the way it was pre-COVID,” Kapaku said.

She explained that the community and infrastructure cannot tolerate the thousands of people a day that once regularly visited East Maui.

“Both tourists and Maui residents should prepared for an engaged community,” she added, noting the brainstorming and planning that has been going on since access has been limited to East Maui.

Residents have also asked that the state open up park bathrooms, such as those at Pua’a Ka’a State Wayside and Kaumahina State Wayside parks, as they’ve seen some people use the bathroom on the side of the road.

English said Wednesday that those bathrooms are not yet opened. Before COVID, the state cleaned them once a day, but now has to find a way to sanitize frequently with limited staff.

During the county news conference, officials also announced that drive-thru testing will be held from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. July 22 at Keopuolani Park in Kahului. The event is being put on by Minit Medical Urgent Care and assisted by the Hawaii National Guard and the Maui County Department of Parks and Recreation.

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

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