Camping Holiday

State looks to curb illegal gatherings amid holiday | News, Sports, Jobs

Makena’s Oneloa, or Big Beach, is shown last month. Amid concerns over illegal activity and COVID risks during the holiday weekend, the state is trying to curb mass gatherings like the ones that once took place at Makena’s Pu‘u Ola‘i, also known as Little Beach. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Pointing to scenarios where beaches — such as Makena’s Pu’u Ola’i –were temporarily shut down due to large, illegal gatherings during the pandemic, officials warned against such parties at parks and beaches statewide during the upcoming holiday weekend.

The warnings from officials with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and the University of Hawaii on Wednesday came in the wake of a massive beach party along East Oahu’s Kaiwi coastline.

DLNR said during a Wednesday news conference that 300 to 400 people were disbanded at the Oahu party last Saturday, while four people were cited for unpermitted equipment in a state park. Officials doubled down against claims they didn’t issue more citations, saying that law enforcement’s primary mission during that incident was to efficiently disburse the crowd due to COVID-19 risks.

Hospitals throughout the state are buckling under the weight of low staffing and high capacities amid record-high COVID-19 surges, driven by the highly transmissible delta variant. State and county leaders in recent weeks have reduced indoor and outdoor gathering limits and urged people to help curb virus spread.

Jason Redulla, DLNR’s Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement chief, denounced the Oahu gathering and other such events — especially amid the surge in COVID-19 cases. He said the Oahu investigation remains active and asked that promoters step forward.

“To those individuals that are organizing or publicizing these gatherings, stop it,” he said during the news conference. “It’s unbelievable that anyone at this time in the pandemic believes it’s a good idea to promote or attend a gathering like this.”

Officials encouraged public tips and other documentation about potentially illegal gatherings over the weekend.

“As for DOCARE, this will be an all-hands-on-deck situation across the state,” he said. “Please remember that DOCARE has limited resources and cannot be everywhere all the time. This is why we rely on tips from the public to report illegal gatherings such as the one this last Saturday.”

Public tips may be taken anonymously via DLNR enforcement hotline at 643-DLNR (3567) or via the DLNRTip smartphone app. The app is free and downloadable on Apple and Android devices.

“It’s a great way to provide photos and video which really helps DOCARE investigate these cases,” said DLNR spokesman Dan Dennison, who added that the Apple version has been recently repaired.

Curt Cottrell, director of DLNR’s Division of State Parks, said Makena’s Pu’u Ola’i, also known as Little Beach, was shut down for months after a 400-person drum circle with fire dancing, illegal alcohol consumption and alleged drug use, along with unmasked individuals in close proximity, was reported during the pandemic last year.

It was reopened in mid-March with measures to mitigate illegal gatherings, such as a fence and gate that are closed at 4 p.m. on the weekends — earlier than in the past.

“It’s worked,” Cottrell said. “We have eliminated those large gatherings that happened every Sunday.”

“For now we are going to maintain that position of management,” he added. “We didn’t want to — but we were given no choice. (The situation was) augmented by the threat of unmasked people during an increase in COVID.”

Cottrell said secluded beaches have long been hot spots for unpermitted camping or large gatherings and parties. He said human waste and littering are issues at the beaches and parks — which harm cultural and environmental resources. Also, parking and unpermitted gatherings displace the general public.

“Public land is not a free venue for invited crowds and partying — whether it’s resident groups illegally camping or the increasing use of social media crowdsourcing and promoting events,” he said. “The age range is diverse and reflects a common lack of respect to the land and other beach users. I’m sorry — it’s a sense of entitlement. Unfortunately this has forced us to take the extraordinary step of closing beach parks entirely or early on certain days to stop these large gatherings and this is at the expense of our other general public park users.”

“And yet they continue.”

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at [email protected]

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