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Traffic to Hana picking up since road reopened

English working on reservation system to manage traffic flow

Hana Highway had been closed to nonresidents and nonessential travelers beginning March 16 to combat the spread of COVID-19 and for road work. Hana residents said there has been a large increase in visitors to Hana since July 16 when the road reopened. This photo is from May 28. The Maui News / MATTHER THAYER photo

Drivers are steadily traveling again on the twisty Hana Highway in East Maui after its reopening to full public access three weeks ago, but state Sen. J. Kalani English reminded residents and visitors that “it’s still very risky” and to keep safety first when making the trip.

He is also proposing a reservation and itinerary system to manage traffic flow on the popular drive through the East Maui rainforest.

Hana Highway had been closed to nonresidents and nonessential travelers beginning March 16 to combat the spread of COVID-19 and for road work. Checkpoints had been set up near Twin Falls in Haiku and at Ulupalakua Ranch.

Residents said there has been a large increase in visitors to Hana since July 16 when the road reopened.

“There’s been remarkably more traffic going in and out, you know, a lot of it is local traffic from other parts of the island,” said English, who represents Hana, East and Upcountry Maui, Molokai and Lanai. “There’s some tension, of course, because we’re not out of the pandemic. In fact, we’re going to be shutting down and going back to interisland quarantine on Tuesday, so it’s still very risky.”

Gov. David Ige announced Thursday the reinstatement of the interisland travel quarantine due to increased cases of COVID-19 cases. He had lifted the two-week quarantine requirement in mid-June.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, about 1,500 cars traveled to Hana daily. Those numbers plummeted to double-digits amid the statewide economic shutdown but have been growing in the past three weeks, said English, a Hana resident.

“We’re still in the middle of a pandemic,” he said. “We’re shutting down again next week Tuesday, so for people from other parts of the island, they really need to consider why it is that they are going, what it is that they plan on doing.”

East Maui residents and businesses have been taking extra precautions, he said; one positive COVID-19 case could exhaust the community’s resources. If there is a spike in case counts in Maui County, English said that state and county officials might discuss closing down the highway again. 

Meanwhile, with less foot and car traffic, Hana appeared to go back in time– fish populations started to return, beaches were clear and roads were quiet. The months Hana town was closed to nonresidents and nonessential travel was a time to reflect on “how much was too much,” English said.

“In general, I think it gave East Maui a time to rest and rejuvenate, and it really got people starting to think about what is important in terms of quality of life,” he said. “I haven’t seen Hana like this since I was a kid in the ’70s.

“People are fishing again, planting a lot of stuff, and our residents were starting to enjoy areas that were usually packed with tourists, like Hamoa Beach or Waianapanapa.” 

Hana resident Leinaala Perry took her daughters, who attend Hana High and Elementary School, to Ching’s Pond in Keanae on Saturday and noticed that “there were a lot of people there.”

Some were local residents from other parts of the island and some were tourists. 

“There has been a lot of tourists driving in since the road has opened. They are visiting the waterfalls and beaches,” Perry said Thursday. “It’s scary because you don’t know if they quarantined or not. I personally don’t have a problem with people from the other side of the island coming in as long as they are practicing social distancing, wearing masks, et cetera.”

Perry said that her family has enjoyed the road closures because there was less traffic, which made essential travel much easier. They also had the opportunity to visit local swimming ponds and bays that were normally overcrowded. 

“But in reality, we can’t keep it closed forever, so we just got to work on keeping our community and kupuna safe and healthy,” she said. “It’s up to each individual to make the right choice, for themselves and others.”

During the highway’s closure, before checkpoints were manned by police and members of the National Guard, some East Maui residents carried out enforcement themselves, putting up signs informing drivers of the road closure and asking vehicles to turn around.

Now that the roads are back open, only a couple of signs are visible along the highway reminding drivers to keep East Maui safe. 

Kaupo Store owner Linda Domen said at the beginning of the pandemic that she didn’t mind the roadblocks. But as the tourist shutdown lingered on for months, the lack of traffic and customers eventually took its toll on her remote business. 

“We have remained closed and have no idea if we will ever be able to open up again,” Domen told The Maui News on Thursday. “We lost a tremendous amount of money with all the inventory that we were left holding.

“Just an empty parking lot, nonbusy road and no money, but full of faith in the almighty and hoping for better things ahead.”

Moving forward, English said he’s working to create a reservation and itinerary system that manages traffic flow. The system would help to organize visitation rates, drive the East Maui economy, promote safety on the roadways, as well as maintain a peaceful quality of life for residents.

“I’ve been trying to put that together as best we can,” he said. “If we had something like that, hopefully, it would make it a better experience for everybody, and again, it would get people to think about exactly why they are going.”

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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