Early in the pandemic, some states other than Hawaii did try to enforce their quarantine rules, arresting a handful of people after they were spotted by a neighbor or a police officer. But these crackdowns dropped off as case numbers swelled and public-health authorities struggled to keep up.
Public-health departments are reluctant to seem like bad cops—or cops at all. After the pandemic, they will have to persuade teens to wear condoms and hippies to get flu shots. Theirs is a soft power, and they’ve been hesitant to throw the book at quarantine breakers. Actual police officers, meanwhile, have bigger priorities than watching people sneak off to Target.
Hawaii created its quarantine law as a travel quarantine, stopping everyone at the airport. These types of quarantines are logistically easier to implement—they don’t require contact tracers—than medical quarantines, in which the state orders a certain individual to stay in isolation. They’re also subject to different legal rules: To medically quarantine a given person in many states, authorities have to issue a court order, not simply call and encourage them to isolate. “We’ve had a lot more nudges than real, enforceable orders,” says Wendy Parmet, a law professor at Northeastern University.
Hawaii is also unique in that it has no land borders with other states. In most states, stopping people at the border is impossible because people regularly cross state lines for work and other essential activities. “Imagine trying to actually enforce an interstate quarantine in the New York metro area. You can’t do it,” Parmet told me. Supposed state travel restrictions, she said, “are somewhat sad acts of desperation based on the lack of federal policy.”
Some other countries have imposed much tougher travel restrictions and quarantine policies. At one point, Greeks were required to text authorities to explain why they needed to go out. Norway quarantined its own citizens under threat of a fine or imprisonment. Most foreigners still can’t fly to Vietnam. All these countries have lower death rates from COVID-19 than the U.S.
Hawaii’s effort has been boosted by a unique citizen activist group called Kapu Breakers. Made up of 6,700 Hawaii residents and led by a former newscaster named Angela Keen, the group tracks down tourists who might be breaking quarantine, then forwards their information to law enforcement. In addition to scouring social media, they rely on tips from hotel concierges, taxi drivers, and others who could have contact with tourists who might be breaking kapu, or “sacred laws.”
Keen believes that Hawaii residents are on such high alert because of long-ago pandemics that came to the islands and killed large percentages of the population. “Generations of stories you hear, from great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, that the pandemics nearly killed off Native Hawaiians,” she told me. “So there is a great fear here of outsiders coming in and bringing it with them.” In the past century and a half, thousands of people, mostly Hawaiians, died of Hansen’s disease—known informally as leprosy—at Kalaupapa, Hawaii’s most infamous quarantine.