State authorities are moving toward restricting neighbor island air traffic and conducting temperature testing for passengers in the latest measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
State Adjutant Gen. Kenneth Hara, incident commander with the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, told the state Senate COVID-19 Special Committee on Friday the decision to restrict interisland air travel was made during a teleconference that day including Gov. David Ige, the county mayors and emergency managers.
“The decision is that we’re going to do it,” Hara said.
Details about implementing the effort, as well as what travel exemptions to allow, are pending, he said. For example, he said, the restriction could lead Hawaiian Airlines to discontinue service and thus block critical cargo from reaching the neighbor islands.
“We’re thinking through that,” he said.
Ige, who has yet to issue a supplemental order adding the neighbor islands, provided a less affirmative response to a Honolulu Star-Advertiser query.
“We are currently examining what would be required to implement the 14-day mandatory quarantine for interisland travel,” he said.
On temperature testing of passengers, Hara said testing of everyone who passes through state airports would be implemented but that details of how to accomplish that are pending. So far, only air crews are having their temperature checked at the airport, he said.
Hara said the director general of Taiwan told him that a similar measure there resulted in a 40% success rate in identifying travelers who had COVID-19.
“To me, that’s good enough, so we’re going to press forward,” Hara said.
Hawaii state Sen. Glenn Wakai, chairman of the Senate Energy, Economic Development and Tourism Committee, who also consulted with Taiwan officials, supports the move.
“I think something is far better than nothing — and nothing is all we have,” Wakai said. “Right now everyone goes through. They could be sneezing, coughing and have mucus dripping out of their nose and no one will question them.”
Regarding neighbor island travel restrictions, Hara said officials still must determine how to deal with exempt workers who move between islands. He said he prefers a statewide exemption list to avoid the confusion caused by having differing restrictions on different islands.
“How do we get forms to track people? How do we know who’s exempt and who’s not? Is there some type of certificate that has to be notarized to prevent copying?” he said, adding that all these details need to be worked out. “But the decision has been made to restrict interisland air travel.”
State Sen. Donna Mercado Kim told Hara that residents of Lanai and Molokai, places that so far appear COVID-19-free, have complained about the lack of restrictions for neighbor island travelers.
Thursday was the first day of Hawaii’s mandatory 14-day quarantine of all visitors and residents arriving on trans-Pacific flights. Last year at the end of March, more than 30,000 passengers arrived in Hawaii daily, but Thursday only 1,589 passengers came to Hawaii statewide, and of those, only 268 (less than 17%) were visitors. The numbers are expected to continue to get smaller as visitors leave the state and fewer come.
While the drop in North American passengers has been significant since the quarantine order started, it does not apply to interisland flights.
Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami is among the officials asking Ige to extend the 14-day quarantine to interisland travel. He said if the action is deemed unsuitable for statewide implementation, it’s his hope it could be tested on Kauai, which already has implemented more stringent containment measures than the rest of the state.
“My biggest concern is that virus doesn’t discriminate whether you’re out of state or a neighbor island. The more that people move around and the more that we mix both socially and professionally … the more the virus moves around and the more it further advances within our community,” he said.
If the 14-day quarantine doesn’t get extended to Kauai, Kawakami said he’ll go back to the drawing board to come up with more bold moves.
So far, Kauai has been the only county to impose a 9 p.m. curfew, which Kawakami said was aimed at conserving emergency resources and allowing responders to get adequate rest. Kawakami also started requiring beach users to pay a $5 per-person fee. Those who want to park their vehicles at beach parks must pay $50 for a permit, which is limited to 100 per day.
“We saw a big drop in visitor arrivals. All of the sudden Kauai wasn’t such a great place to visit,” he said.
Kawakami said Kauai’s strict containment policies are paying off. “Two days ago, Wilcox Medical Center reported a 40% drop in patients going to the emergency room. AMR (paramedics) only got eight calls islandwide on Thursday,” he said.
Of course, COVID-19 containment policies on Kauai and throughout the rest of the state have negatively impacted Hawaii’s visitor industry.
Some 98 out of 148 hotels across the state already had suspended operations as of Friday, with more expected to come this weekend. The closures were precipitated by declining visitor demand from the global spread of COVID-19 as well as a desire to support the state’s containment policies.
In a letter to tourism industry leaders Friday, Hawaii Tourism Authority President Chris Tatum thanked them for their efforts “to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 by coordinating the movement of more than 250,000 visitors out of the state and preventing more visitors from arriving during this crisis.”
“We realize the negative impacts of these actions on your businesses and employees is heartbreaking; however, your commitment to the health of our families and community has been inspiring.”