Roving neighborhood police patrols. Uniformed soldiers manning checkpoints. A vast surveillance network of hotel staff and health department officials on the lookout for anyone breaking quarantine.
This isn’t an authoritarian dictatorship. It’s the US state of Hawaii, where officials have been enforcing some of the strictest measures in the country aimed at stopping the spread of the coronavirus.
As governments around the world work to flatten the curve of new virus infections, the place known for its “aloha spirit” — and a state law on the books requiring compassion towards others — has opted for tough love to ensure the safety of residents and visitors.
For some tourists escaping to the tropical islands to ride out the pandemic, flouting Hawaii’s rigid public health response has meant jail time.
Newlyweds behind bars
Last week, police arrested a California couple visiting Hawaii on their honeymoon after they ignored warnings to stay inside their hotel room.
Upon arriving in Waikiki, authorities say the man and woman were advised by hotel staff that the state’s emergency pandemic orders required them to self-quarantine. The couple reportedly ignored the instructions and left the hotel. After returning to their hotel around midnight, they were again warned by hotel staff to not leave their room. After again breaking quarantine the next day, hotel staff called police, who arrested the couple.
In late April, a Florida man and Illinois woman were also arrested by Honolulu police after breaking quarantine. Hotel staff notified authorities after seeing the couple return to their room with shopping bags and takeout food, according to state health officials.
On the same day, authorities say a witness saw a 60-year-old California man jet-skiing off Oahu’s north shore, despite orders to quarantine. He was later seen leaving a residence and was followed to a Costco outlet. State investigators placed him under arrest as he returned to his car with groceries, authorities say.
“Our initial goal is to educate people,” Lt. Audra Sellers of the Maui Police Department told CNN. “Our efforts are meant to keep people safe and stop them from spreading the virus.”
But Sellers says the patience of the police only goes so far when dealing with repeat offenders.
“If they’ve been warned, and do it again, we arrest them,” she said.
‘Extreme but necessary’
In late March, Hawaii’s Gov. David Ige signed an emergency order requiring shelter-in-place provisions for all Hawaiians and tourists. Under the order, anyone arriving in the state must undergo 14 days of self-quarantine.
“These actions are extreme, but necessary, to flatten the curve and lay the groundwork for our recovery,” Ige said.
New arrivals must fill out documentation listing their contact and lodging information, and a signature is required acknowledging one’s understanding that violating quarantine is a criminal offense punishable by a $5,000 fine and up to one year in prison, according to the state’s transportation department.
But enforcement efforts don’t stop there. Airport health officials are required to dial the cell number a passenger provides, to ensure it is valid. After verifying one’s contact information, a representative then calls the hotel where a visitor intends to stay, to confirm there is an existing reservation.
“Law enforcement officers are standing by to deal with anyone who refuses the process or becomes combative,” according to transportation officials.
CNN spoke with a hotel manager in Hawaii who asked not to be named to speak freely about how resorts are assisting law enforcement with the state’s emergency orders.
“Our guests receive periodic calls from state health officials, the police, and hotel staff, to make sure they are actually in their rooms,” the hotel manager said.
“Some of our hotels are issuing one-time keys, which allow a guest to enter their room upon check-in, but don’t allow reentry,” he said. “For first-time offenders, our staff will escort them back to their rooms. If they leave again, we call the police.”
The hotel manager described a network of surveillance by authorities, hotel staff and local residents geared towards ensuring visitors do not break quarantine orders. He said he has witnessed police and members of the national guard routinely checking on visitors.
A spokesman for the Hawaii National Guard confirmed to CNN that some service members have been assigned to ride along with police to check on residents and tourists.
Aloha is a two-way street
At first glance, the draconian measures instituted in Hawaii appear to run counter to the Aloha State’s reputation for kindness and compassion. In an interview with CNN, however, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell described the rationale behind the tough approach.
“We, like most of the United States, are still dealing with the challenges of this pandemic,” he said. “But right now, we see traveling as bringing the virus, and we would prefer people not come until it’s safe to travel again.”
Caldwell understands the strict measures may seem to contradict Hawaii’s welcoming spirit, but he notes it’s incumbent upon visitors who cherish the islands to understand the damage a widespread outbreak could do to residents of the archipelago state.
“We’re a place of great aloha, and aloha still remains,” he said. “But aloha works both ways. It works from the perspective of the people who live here and the people who visit here. If you’re coming here and acting irresponsibly, you’re not showing aloha to the place you say you care about.”
While Hawaii’s stay-at-home and quarantine orders are among the most comprehensive in the nation, they appear to be working. On Friday, state health officials announced there were no new Covid-19 cases for the first time since March 13.
Although the emergency measures are apparently stopping the spread of the virus, Caldwell acknowledges they also come with a high cost to the tourism-reliant state’s bottom line.
“We’re going to have a real struggle because we’re so dependent on tourism, and we definitely want tourists to come back,” he said. “But we have to figure out how they come back where they’re safe, and we’re safe, too.”