hawaii waikiki beach coronavirus
Fewer than usual people are seen at Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, Hawaii, on July 29, 2020, amid the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Kyodo News via Getty Images

  • US islands that emerged from the early months of the coronavirus pandemic relatively unscathed are now facing outbreaks.
  • In Puerto Rico, Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced imposed travel restrictions after several officials contracted the virus.
  • In Hawaii, Gov. David Ige signed a strict stay-at-home order for the island of Oahu after the state's case count jumped from 1,688 cases to 7,260 cases and the death toll doubled.
  • With nearly no cases in the US Virgin Islands for the first few months of the pandemic, the number of infections is now approaching 1,000 and authorities have shut down tourism.
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US islands in the Caribbean and Pacific are facing a major surge of coronavirus cases after emerging from the early months of the pandemic relatively unscathed.

Islands from Hawaii to Puerto Rico were praised throughout the springtime for taking decisive action to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks, implementing strict lockdowns and quarantine protocols in order to prevent the wave of deaths that the mainland US faced.

But the islands are now showing alarming signs of large coronavirus outbreaks, The New York Times reported Tuesday.

Hawaii, in particular, is emerging as a new hotspot. In just four weeks, the state's case count jumped from 1,688 cases to 7,260 cases. The death toll, too, has doubled in that period, increasing from 26 to 51 deaths.

hawaii coronavirus
A beachgoer wearing a protective mask walks down Waikiki Beach, with Diamond Head mountain in the background in Honolulu, Hawaii, on April 28, 2020.

Reuters/Marco Garcia

Hawaii is once again taking dramatic action to curb the outbreak. The governor effectively "shut down" the island of Oahu this week, signing a stay-at-home and work-from-home order that will stay in place for two weeks.

Businesses like gyms, salons, and dine-in restaurants will be forced to close, as will beaches and state parks. The order also forbids "indoor and outdoor social gatherings of any type and any number of people," and the state will hire up to 500 contact tracers to respond to the surge in cases.

Oahu residents grew frustrated with previous coronavirus rules, saying they made no sense

Hawaii's coronavirus guidelines have also struck a nerve among residents, who have criticized them for being nonsensical, given what we know about the higher risk of transmitting the virus inside closed spaces.

For instance, before Gov. David Ige's stay-at-home order, Oahu permitted gyms, water parks, and other indoor activities to stay open, but forbid people from using open-air public spaces like hiking trails, parks, and beaches.

The city also formerly permitted indoor dining in restaurants, but forbid residents from inviting guests into their homes from outside their households.

One video criticizing the rules spread widely across TikTok and Twitter, pointing out that it was against Oahu's rules to invite a girlfriend over for dinner, but fine to meet her at a public, indoor restaurant.

"People are infecting each other in crowded apartments while hotels sit empty. Close contacts are being refused testing by the officials responsible for testing them," Dr. Jonathan Dworkin, an infectious diseases doctor and Big Island resident, wrote in a Honolulu Star-Adviser column.

Health officials in Hawaii were slow to ramp up testing and their criteria for testing "remained inappropriately narrow," Dworkin said in his editorial.

The governor's office said in a statement on Wednesday that health officials expressed "concern about growing activity on Maui and Hawai'i island."

"Along with our county partners, we are closely monitoring these trends. We have concerns that ongoing gatherings, especially with inconsistent mask use or distancing, are contributing," State Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park said.

Infection rates are also surging in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands

Hawaii is not alone. Coronavirus cases are also spiking in the US Virgin Islands and are now approaching nearly 1,000 cases despite reporting nearly zero in the first few months of the pandemic.

Cases surged to 224 per 100,000 in the territory, the highest per capita increase of infection in any state or territory, The Times reported. To address the surge, authorities in the US Virgin Islands restricted tourism activities for a month.

Puerto Rico is also showing a similar trend. The US commonwealth, with more 3 million residents, was one of the first in the nation to impose a lockdown in March, and the case counts since then have remained relatively low.

A woman walks pass by a banner urging visitors to wear face masks in San Juan, Puerto Rico
A woman walks pass by a banner urging visitors to wear face masks in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Ricardo Arduengo/AFP/Getty Images

But rising unemployment forced many residents to leave their homes and stand for hours at a time in crowded lines for public assistance.

After several legislators, two aids to a gubernatorial nominee, a congresswoman, and several legislators contracted the virus, Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced imposed restrictions on tourism, and implemented a stay-at-home order.

"One of the most critical areas remains contact tracing, and the testing that is done," Lorenzo González, Puerto Rico's health secretary, told The Times, adding that a shortage of testing equipment was posing a greater challenge for authorities to contain the spread.

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