As protesters against construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope leave Hawaii’s sacred Maunakea mountain out of fear of health-compromised elders contracting the deadly novel corornavirus, backers of TMT are pointing to a new poll indicating a majority of Hawaiians favor construction of the giant telescope.

Conducted by Ward Research Inc., the poll shows 61 percent of those asked said they support moving ahead with construction of the $1.4 billion project, with 32 percent opposed.

Meanwhile, the website Space.com is reporting native Hawaiians who oppose construction of TMT on the dormant volcano have reduced their presence on the mountain, where they have been protesting for the past five years.

“On March 14, the Pu’uhonua o Pu’uhuluhulu community encamped on the mountain published a statement on asking kupuna (elders) and ‘those with a higher risk of respiratory illness’ to stay home and off the mountain. The group, who refer to themselves as kia’i, or guardians, also asked visitors and supporters to refrain from visiting Maunakea until the pandemic has passed its critical stage, according to the statement,” Space.com reported.

“In addition to taking generally recommended precautions, the kia’i said they are concerned that tourists visiting Hawaii from elsewhere put their elderly community at increased risk,” the website reported.

“Given where we are, it was important for us to understand how Hawaii residents feel about the project,” said Gordon Squires, TMT vice president of external relations, according to the TMT website. “These results are significant, demonstrating that a majority of the Hawaii community supports TMT moving forward on Maunakea. The findings also show that the people of Hawaii see the benefits TMT will bring in terms of Hawaii’s economy and education. They also understand that TMT will likely revolutionize humankind’s understanding of the universe and will help to ensure that Hawaii remains the global leader in astronomy.”

TMT Project has been developed as collaboration between Pasadena’s Caltech, the University of California (UC), the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy (ACURA), and the national institutes of Japan, China and India with the goal to design, develop, construct, and operate a thirty-meter class telescope and observatory on Maunakea in cooperation with the University of Hawaii. The TMT International Observatory LLC (TIO), a nonprofit organization, was established in May 2014 to carry out the construction and operation phases of the TMT Project.

Members of TIO are Caltech, the University of California, the National Institutes of Natural Sciences of Japan, the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Department of Science and Technology of India, and the National Research Council of Canada; the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) is a TIO Associate. Major funding has been provided by the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation.

Other key findings of the poll  include:

• 92 percent of Hawaii residents agree there should be a way for science and Hawaiian culture both to exist on Maunakea

• 83 percent of Hawaii residents agree that the protest on Maunakea is really about issues larger than TMT, such as Hawaiian homelands, overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom, and land management

• 80 percent of Hawaii residents agree that peaceful protests are fine but have no tolerance for protests that result in laws being broken

• 79 percent of Hawaii residents agree that the government is responsible for providing safe construction access to the TMT site

• 76 percent agree that TMT will help create good paying jobs and economic and educational benefits for those living on Hawaii Island

• 65 percent of Hawaii residents agree that failure to move forward with TMT will lead to the departure of Hawaii’s $167-million astronomy industry

Although elders were asked to retreat for their safety against COVID-19, there is still a kia’i presence on the mountain, kupuna and kia’i, said spokesperson Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, according to Space.com.

“We’re still here,” Wong-Wison told the news website, adding that this type of reduction in their active presence does not mean the movement halts, too.

“We’re not against the science of astronomy,” Wong-Wislon told Space.com. “We are against the building of a building too big on our sacred mountain. And we really want to make that clear, because that gets lost.”

Squires said a time frame has not been set for construction to begin on the TMT observatory.