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Long lines at Oahu polling locations trigger fears of COVID-19 spread

Updated: Nov. 4, 2020 at 5:48 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Going into Tuesday night, elections officials said they were working to ensure that COVID-19 protocols were in place at two polling locations on Oahu.

Social distancing was enforced and masks were required.

But they didn’t expect the in-person turnout that materialized ― 4,500 voters who came out and waited in lines for hours to cast their ballot in an election that was primarily conducted by mail.

What triggered those lines, and whether they were avoidable, is up for debate.

But onlookers are also raising concerns about whether the large crowds of voters ― hundreds at several points through the day and into the evening ― could have been exposed to COVID-19.

When asked about that on Tuesday night, Lt. Gov. Josh Green agreed there is cause for concern.

“You just had the event that we tried to avoid for Halloween,” said Green. “That’s going to cause spread. It hopefully won’t cause a lot of spread. If people wear masks, you have some hope.”

Most people in line did appear to be wearing masks, but some were not wearing them or wearing them below their faces.

He said those standing in line next to each other “are close contacts now.” He urged the city to offer additional COVID-19 testing.

Hawaii epidemiologist DeWolfe Miller also said he was also watching the large lines with concern and is “crossing his fingers” that they don’t trigger COVID-19 spread.

He said the good news is that in addition to broad mask wearing, people were orderly and trying to maintain a distance from each other. The bad news is there’s just no way of knowing whether the virus was being spread in lines, at least not until someone falls ill and traces it to the election turnout.

“There’s no way of knowing really if there was any amount of transmission,” he said. “I don’t think it would be an ideal situation for a superspreader event, but it could have been.”

Elections officials acknowledge the challenge.

“We tried to keep people separated from each other, but once you start amassing a large crowd, people start getting closer to each other and it is a challenge to manage," said City Clerk Glen Takahashi. “I don’t think we were expecting that many people."

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell was less concerned.

“I think because of where it was occurring, I think it’s much safer than what we saw on Halloween,” he said. “We’ve been reminded repeatedly by the medical community outside is safer than inside and pretty much everyone was wearing a face covering."

This story will be updated.

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