There is reason to believe they are related, but so far, no definitive link has been found tying the recent Big Island upsurge in coronavirus cases with several large gatherings in late July and early August, the director of the state Department of Health said in a letter Wednesday.
Dr. Bruce Anderson sent the letter to state Sen. Kai Kahele in response to his questions. The Hilo Democrat, who is running for Congress, asked for more details after he and mayoral candidate Ikaika Marzo were criticized on social media for their parts in a July 25 Keaukaha memorial service. A video of the event showed participants much closer than 6 feet apart, many of them embracing and many without masks.
“DOH is aware of four large gatherings in Keaukaha, Hilo, Puna, and Kalapana around late July and early August, at which Oahu residents were reported to have attended,” Anderson said in the letter. “Due to the timing of the Hilo surge in mid-August, there is reason to believe they are related to the increase in cases, but as of yet no definitive link has been identified between the events, travel history, and a specific source based on information gathered from contact tracing.”
Mayor Harry Kim’s Emergency Rule No. 10, which was in effect at the time, allowed outdoor gatherings up to 100 people, provided physical distancing and safe practices are maintained. Face masks are required when in public, under the rule. The events occurred before the re-institution of the 14-day interisland quarantine, so Oahu visitors were allowed to roam freely.
Since those events, the interisland quarantine has been re-instituted. Under a temporary order, county beach parks have been closed, except for traversing directly to and from the ocean in the course of swimming, fishing or food-gathering.
Kim and the county’s civil defense messages have linked large gatherings to community spread of the virus, which has escalated into new positive cases in the double digits daily, including six deaths, for approximately the past two weeks.
Anderson said the department continues to investigate through contact tracing.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t differentiate between indoor and outdoor gatherings, but lists in the “highest risk” category, “Large in-person gatherings where it is difficult for individuals to remain spaced at least 6 feet apart and attendees travel from outside the local area.”
But Kahele, in a public Facebook post Thursday, railed against the mayor, the island’s newspapers and what he called “rumors on social media,” for linking the gatherings with the community spread of the virus.
Asked Friday what message he was sending to the community by participating in such events, Kahele called the question “inappropriate.” He said the memorial he attended as a representative of the state Senate was in honor of a personal friend of his.
“I do not think shaming for grieving is the way we should address that,” Kahele said. “It’s an inappropriate question to address to people who are grieving. … We don’t need that on our island right now.”
Still, Kahele acknowledged, “I need to set a better example myself and we need to continue to be vigilant.”
Marzo, who faces county Prosecuting Attorney Mitch Roth in the Nov. 3 general election for mayor, was asked a similar question Thursday evening in a PBS Hawaii “insights” program. Moderator Darryl Huff asked the candidate what his participation in the event said about his judgment and ability to be mayor.
Marzo can be seen on the publicly available YouTube video, “What Gang Hana Hou” piloting his tour boat packed with people during an ashes spreading ceremony at the July 25 memorial service. He said the boat, which holds about 40 passengers, was about 50-50 locals and Oahu visitors.
“We partaked in this ceremony of casting our brother to the next realm and you know, I felt good about it. To point fingers and say that we was part of something that, you know, what we see today with COVID-19 cases. There was no restrictions at that time with traveling, quarantine, 14-day quarantine restrictions,” Marzo said during the televised show. “Yes, I was part of it and I was proud of it and I’m gonna man up to it because my manao and my heart was for the family and that’s what I did.”
When asked if he had a comment, Roth replied, “I think everybody is trying to do their best right now to be safe and I’ll just leave it at that.”
Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy, whose district includes Keaukaha, didn’t attend the memorial. But she understands the angst Native Hawaiians are feeling, especially considering the culture is one of large group gatherings, touching and hugging.
“It’s in our culture; it’s hard for us, it’s really hard for us. … It’s a tough teaching moment for us,” Lee Loy said. “We don’t as an ethnicity do well in pandemics, as history has shown. For the survival of our culture and our people we have to be more innovative and thoughtful.”