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Hawaii tourism agency pays to send visitors home amid coronavirus crisis

  • CHRISTIE WILSON / MARCH 30
                                Officials don’t know why visitor counts have picked up. They say, anecdotally, that some of the visitors are coming to take advantage of cheap deals. Above, the departure area at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport was empty last week.

    CHRISTIE WILSON / MARCH 30

    Officials don’t know why visitor counts have picked up. They say, anecdotally, that some of the visitors are coming to take advantage of cheap deals. Above, the departure area at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport was empty last week.

The Visitor Aloha Society of Hawaii (VASH) returned two homeless men to Los Angeles on Monday, the first day of the nonprofit’s COVID-19 flight assistance program.

The program, which is funded with a grant from the Hawaii Tourism Authority, aims to ensure that travelers to Hawaii don’t stay here unless they have the resources to follow a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine. Visitors to Hawaii are required to bear all quarantine expenses, including lodging and food delivery.

“The purpose of the grant is to keep Hawaii safe. We want to return arriving passengers to their place of origin if they come here and don’t have any plans or lack resources to comply with the 14-day quarantine,” said Jessica Lani Rich, VASH president and CEO.

It seems unlikely that most visitors would want to come to Hawaii if they were subject to a quarantine. To be sure, trans-Pacific passenger counts have fallen dramatically from last year’s average of more than 30,000 a day. Still, the small number of visitors coming to Hawaii despite the quarantines has been rising since Thursday.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority said Sunday’s trans-Pacific visitor arrival count was 126. The number of visitors Saturday was 106; it was 94 on Friday and 89 on Thursday.

Officials don’t know why visitor counts have picked up. They say, anecdotally, that some of the visitors are coming to take advantage of cheap deals. Others might be second-home owners or vacation renters seeking to hunker down in Hawaii rather than where they live, where COVID-19 cases and restrictions could be worse.

Rich said visitors to Hawaii, who are flagged for not having lodging, are given a choice to prove that they have found a place to stay or leave. Violations of the quarantine mandate could result in a misdemeanor with fines up to $5,000 and one year in prison.

“It’s really hard to find a place to stay now,” Rich said. “We aren’t going to pay for someone to come into the state during the COVID-19 pandemic because they are thinking it’s a cheap ticket and someone will pay for their housing.”

Rich said visitors and homeless people with a boarding pass showing that they arrived that day could be eligible for flight assistance, which varies based on need.

“We screen participants for eligibility and need,” Rich said. “Some people may not need assistance. Those that have a round-trip ticket might only need us to pay for a change fee. Others might need us to pay the entire cost of their return ticket. “

Before the flight assistance program launched, Rich said VASH assisted a woman and her child get back to Germany after she completed the quarantine and had no more resources to stay. The agency also is helping house a Samoan father and daughter who got stuck in Hawaii after American Samoa stopped accepting visitors and residents.

“He’ll be here until April 30 — that’s the date when American Samoa is supposed to let residents and visitors start coming again,” she said.

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