Oahu's Landscape with illustrated lines emphasizing the edges

The Aloha Spirit: Being a Mindful Visitor to Hawaii During COVID-19

The state's quick response to COVID-19 is simply a reflection of Hawaiian values

In November 2019, just two weeks after my father’s death and just days into the divorce process, my then 8-year old daughter pierced my already broken heart. “We’ll probably never go back to Hawaii,” Amaris said, unprovoked as we sat on the Craigslist-bought couch in my mostly empty, “new” apartment. Despite the weight of uncertainty, I quickly shot back, “Yes, we will. We go every year, and that will never change.” Living on the West Coast, where Hawaii’s most frequent visitors originate, the single flight it takes to be in paradise made this tradition a (sea) breeze. We always visited when the winter migration brought thousands of North Pacific humpback whales close to Hawaiian shores. March became our month to visit.

Little did I know I was lying. One year, almost to the day, after we’d touched down at sunset on Kauai, as a family of five, my entire life had changed. I was almost single, sheltering in place, supervising disjointed distance learning, and unable to travel safely, even to my kids’ favorite indoor playground down the street. On March 11, the director-general of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom, spoke these chilling words during a virtual press conference:

"WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we're deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction. We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic."

Not until the WHO announcement did government officials move to stop the spread in the mainland United States. After a few weeks of mandatory quarantine for arriving travelers, federal and state health officials moved from containment to mitigation in California and across the U.S. (Mitigation—which you’re probably intimately familiar with by now—limits the impact of the virus by attempting to reduce community spread by limiting large gatherings, asking people to shelter in place, and changing how businesses run, such as eliminating indoor dining and shuttering offices to prevent workplace transmission.)

Collage of images from around Hawaii
Photos: TripSavvy / Taylor McIntyre; Illustration: TripSavvy / Alison Czinkota

Hawaii took the first-of-its-kind approach quickly. Just eight days after the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic, business owners, health, and government officials came together with a plan that incorporated a mix of mitigation and containment actions in the state. “I want to thank them for their commitment to their employees, their commitment to the community, and their commitment to keep our community safe,” which Governor David Ige said required “selflessness.” During the first press conference, Ige announced a mandatory 14-day quarantine for all incoming visitors and returning residents. Given that tourism accounted for almost $18 billion in spending in 2019, hosting more than 10 million visitors, the decision caused a significant blow to Hawaii’s economy. In addition, testing centers were also set up immediately in each county to ensure proper monitoring of the virus’s spread.

Hawaii’s now retired health director Bruce Anderson explained the importance of mask-wearing in a press release just a day after the CDC announced further guidance about wearing a mask. “Protection of others is maximized when face masks are used… Remember, my facemask protects you, and your facemask protects me,” Anderson explained. The robust communication with the public, a collaboration between business leaders and county and state officials, and the people of Hawaii’s support and cooperation to slow the spread had resulted in the lowest numbers in the U.S. in terms of infection rates early on, which is why Hawaii is one of TripSavvy’s Industry Leaders in 2020.

By May, I was hopeful that safe travel would resume by August and booked what would be my first solo trip to Kauai. But, as the summer months dragged on, protests against police brutality, spiking rates of COVID-19 infection, and disregard for mask-wearing left me uneasy. I pushed my trip again.

In August, Hawaii pivoted from its earlier successes, becoming number one in the rate of transmission of COVID-19 in the U.S., according to numbers from the Hawaii Department of Public Health. While the state still has a low total number of cases, infection rates help predict the virus’s future spread. Officials blame the soft re-opening of the economy. Workplace transmission, lack of adequate testing, and an inadequate number of contact tracers are all threats to keeping that curve flat. Lockdown fatigue, which would have community members and visitors less careful about mask-wearing, social distancing, and hosting gatherings, also poses a challenge. So, as the strict guidelines go away, how can visitors and residents stay safe?

Illustration depicting Hawaii and the people's connection to nature
TripSavvy / Alison Czinkota

The Hawaiian culture is one that believes in personal responsibility. They show reverence and respect for others, including ancestors and elders or kupuna, and land, sea, animal life, and God acknowledging all life as interconnected. The “aloha spirit” is a way of life that assumes that any harm done to any of these is harm to oneself. To go further, living pono calls for people to live a balanced life in harmony with the land, others, and self. Living pono requires that you live and act sustainably, not taking more than you need, as well as being aware and considerate of how your actions affect others. To beat COVID-19 and preserve the Hawaiian Islands’ paradise, we must practice both of these tenets of Hawaiian culture.

Finally, after seven emergency proclamations, the mandatory 14-day quarantine is set to end Oct. 31. On Oct. 15, a pre-travel testing program will allow travelers who present a negative FDA-authorized Nucleic Acid Amplification Test (NAAT) from the certified CLIA lab of Hawaii’s trusted testing and travel partners within 72 hours from the last leg of their trip to avoid mandatory quarantine. (Some testing centers have age limits, so check ahead to confirm your child can be tested and get results promptly.) Also, testing upon arrival may be implemented to avoid quarantine. I might finally get back to Hawaii; the trip is rescheduled for November. But to maintain the freedom to travel, Hawaii residents and visitors must stay diligent.

"By and large, our population here in Hawaii is very committed to the community and to taking care of the vulnerable, to our kupuna,” wrote Dr. Steven Hankins, the lead coordinator of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency 9HI-EMA) COVID-19 Emergency Response Team in a PSA posted to Facebook in June. “We tend to be more receptive to things that are really critical, like the wearing of masks [and] the keeping the physical spacing.”

An empty pristine beach in Hawaii
TripSavvy / Taylor McIntyre

Going beyond its health and safety measures, the Hawaii Tourism Authority is leading an initiative to encourage regenerative tourism by giving visitors an extra day at no charge if they participate in a voluntourism activity. “We would like to have the visitors enjoy Hawaii in a sustainable way with the mālama mindset, which means caring for the residents, our natural resources and culture, and in turn, the residents will also care for the visitors,” said Pattie Herman, the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s vice president of marketing and product development. (While the program isn’t officially announced, check the HTA’s website for updates.)

There’s a bit of irony that I’ll be returning to Hawaii during the week of Thanksgiving. I’ll have the peace and serenity of Kauai to myself to enjoy. Not to entertain my children, not to have a romantic experience with a lover, but to find ways to enrich the place that has enriched me annually for over 14 years. Given the threat of COVID-19 and the many changes to life, work and routine we’re all enduring, I am happy to return to Hawaii fully capable of being mindful of how I engage with residents and all that I come in contact with. I'm reminded of mimosa pudica—the "sensitive plant"—a plant that reacts to touch and grows wild on the Hawaiian Islands. After so many years of receiving from it, staying safe and following guidelines is the least I can do to protect the island paradise that feels like a second home.

Main Photo: TripSavvy / Taylor McIntyre; Illustration: TripSavvy / Julie Bang