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Volunteer sleuths track down Hawaii's quarantine scofflaws

AP

Former longtime television reporter Angela Keen knows how to track people down.

During the coronavirus pandemic, she’s putting her skills to use finding tourists who defy Hawaii’s mandatory two-week quarantine on arriving travelers.

When members of her Facebook group spot tourists posting about their beach trips on social media, Keen zeroes in on photos for clues like license plate numbers she can run down and distinctive furnishings she can match up with vacation rental listings.

Armed with a violator’s name, she scours the internet for information, from criminal records to previous addresses.

“I start doing a deeper search with my reporter skills and try to dig things up to say, ‘Are they a risk? … Do they come from a hot spot?’” said Keen, who was recently working in communications.

So far, volunteer sleuths with her group Hawaii Quarantine Kapu Breakers — “kapu” can mean “rules” in Hawaiian — has helped find about 13 people on Oahu and 22 people on the Big Island who were later arrested by police, Keen said. Members on other islands assisted with other cases that led to arrests, she said.

Keen said group members are told not to approach potential violators and not to profile people because they look like outsiders. Lawmakers have credited the group with passing along information to authorities and not taking matters into their own hands.

Residents helping bring violators to justice is a unique approach to enforcing a quarantine requirement meant to contain the coronavirus, which could spread quickly on the islands if travelers bring it in and pose a threat to Hawaii’s limited medical resources. While cases are surging in some states, the quarantine has helped Hawaii maintain some of the nation’s lowest COVID-19 infection and mortality rates.

As of Friday, Hawaii reported nearly 800 confirmed infections. There have been 17 deaths.

Lawmakers are grappling with how to police hundreds of visitors who continue to arrive daily, even after Gov. David Ige extended the quarantine order through July. Ige has lifted a similar mandate for those traveling between islands and started to allow many businesses to reopen, but officials are still figuring out how to safely welcome back tourists who have long driven Hawaii’s economy.

“I think when you have these instances of individuals blatantly violating the quarantine, you’re naturally going to get this kind of response from the community,” said Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole, who’s on the Senate Special Committee on COVID-19. “It’s been a challenge tracking down handfuls of quarantine violators. If that ramps up to hundreds or thousands, we’re going to have to change strategy.”

Keen’s group has learned some lessons from violators who got away — or nearly did, including a tourist from California whose social media posts showed him on the beach, at the popular volcanic crater Diamond Head and riding a city bus.

“I tracked him for 14 days,” Keen said. Members didn’t call him out on his posts to ensure he wouldn’t know they were on to him, and they passed along the information they got to investigators.

When Keen saw him post that he was leaving, she texted an investigator, fearing it would be too late. Authorities, however, got to Honolulu’s airport in minutes, she said.

He was arrested an hour before his flight to Los Angeles. He posted $2,000 bail and caught a later flight, officials said.

The group also tracked down visitors who had rented a Mustang through a company that loans out private owners’ vehicles. When arriving at the airport, they listed the car owner’s address as where they would spend quarantine, but the group found them at a short-term vacation rental in Waikiki.

Keen believes they were tipped off because of angry messages they got on social media.

“So they left before the investigators could get to them and they shut down their accounts,” Keen said. “They went dark.”

Last Wednesday, a tourist from Oklahoma who was supposed to be obeying the state’s quarantine was pronounced dead after he was found unresponsive in the ocean.

Keen, who grew up in Nebraska and moved to Hawaii 26 years ago, said she’s motivated by a desire to protect residents from people who see the islands as a safe spot to ride out the pandemic.

“But we don’t want that right now because it’s a risk for all of us,” she said, pointing especially to Native Hawaiians and their history with Europeans bringing deadly illnesses. “They are the most precious part of Hawaii. And we want them to be around for a long time.”

Community members on the lookout are helpful to law enforcement, said Lt. Audra Sellers, a Maui police spokeswoman.

“As a small community here in Hawaii, it takes everybody to be able to keep everybody safe,” she said. “You know, some people say, ‘Oh, you’re snitching on people,’ but that’s not how you see it. It’s seen it as the fact that you want to keep the community safe.”

When travelers land, officials at airports verify their arrangements by contacting hotels directly and letting them know a visitor has arrived, the state said. Workers from Hawaii tourism agencies follow up numerous times to verify travelers are in quarantine. When workers can’t contact someone, they alert law enforcement.

While in quarantine in a hotel room or home, visitors and residents aren’t allowed to leave except for medical emergencies.

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