Hawaii really wants tourists to know that during the COVID-19 pandemic aloha means goodbye.
Management Agency Incident Commander Kenneth Hara said he is working with state Attorney General Claire Connors to see whether it’s possible for Hawaii to restrict visitors who arrive for leisure from making lodging reservations.
“We’re looking at possibly restricting their ability to make reservations with lodging,” Hara told a state House committee on the new coronavirus Monday.
Connors did not address the issue Tuesday when she came before a similar Senate coronavirus committee. However, the proposal was a topic of discussion for the visitor industry, which found out about the idea only after Monday’s hearing.
Mufi Hannemann, president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association, said Tuesday that the hotel industry supports the government’s decision to collapse tourism but might find it difficult to enforce restrictions on reservations.
“The devil is going to be in the details,” he said.
Hannemann said state officials must consider whether the request is enforceable, how to handle privacy rights and whether it’s possible to block vacation rentals, too. They’ll also have to figure out a way to balance restrictions against the need to stay open for essential business.
“If we aren’t taking more reservations, how do we continue to keep some hotels open for the community?” Hannemann said. “We have the Hotel for Heroes program operating at some hotels to provide free housing to working health care professionals and first responders. We also have people coming for essential travel and emergency reasons.”
The move is only the latest in a series to keep out leisure visitors at a time when the state doesn’t want them potentially bringing the new coronavirus here or using limited resources. Gov. David Ige told visitors last month that if they had reservations they should postpone their trips for at least 30 days. Ige also ordered a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine for all arriving trans-Pacific passengers that began March 26 and was extended to neighbor island travel April 1.
However, those measures to flatten the so-called pandemic curve have been crushing blows to the state’s tourism-dependent economy. A WalletHub study released Tuesday indicated that Hawaii was the hardest-hit state in terms of COVID-19’s impact on tourism. The study said Hawaii also had been the most aggressive in its response to COVID-19 after Alaska, which was ranked No. 17 in terms of COVID-19 tourism impacts.
Before COVID-19 some 30,000 passengers arrived daily at the state’s airports. Now only about 100 or so visitors are coming each day. But even that’s too many for some residents and lawmakers.
Lawmakers at a Senate coronavirus committee briefing Monday wanted to know why Ige had not asked President Donald Trump to halt all nonessential air travel to Hawaii. They also said better tracking was needed for tourists who claim they are staying at vacation rentals and hotels.
Hara told the House committee Monday that Hawaii is exploring preventing leisure travelers from booking lodging since federal law doesn’t allow Hawaii to stop visitors from flying into the state.
HTA has reported that some 2,138 trans-Pacific visitors have come to Hawaii since the quarantine. On Monday, 691 trans-Pacific passengers arrived, including 164 visitors and 205 residents.
Monday’s count was the highest daily visitor count since March 26, when 239 visitors came.
HTA spokeswoman Marisa Yamane said visitor counts rose Monday in part because a flight from Majuro brought 19 visitors. More visitors also came from San Francisco and Seattle, Yamane said.
Stay-at-home orders from Washington state, which expire May 4, and San Francisco, which end May 3, prohibit people from leaving their residence except for essential activities or essential work.
The Republic of the Marshall Islands has suspended international travelers from coming there through May 5.
The Visitor Aloha Society of Hawaii, which is running an HTA-funded COVID-19 flight assistance program for visitors, has sent nine home and assisted with pending arrangements for another four.
Hawaii island Mayor Harry Kim and Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami have issued orders prohibiting vacation rentals from taking bookings or advertising during county COVID-19 containment periods. Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and Maui Mayor Mike Victorino have declared that transient vacation rentals are not essential businesses.
Still, some visitors are booking stays at vacation rentals, said Choon James, who is running for Honolulu mayor and lives by Laie Point, a popular North Shore tourist attraction.
“It’s not a good sign that the visitor count is going up,” she said.
James wants the state to step up calls to those in quarantine. She isn’t against blocking hotel reservations, but said that’s only a partial solution on Oahu, where “the city has not effectively enforced Bill 85 or Bill 89 (pre-coronavirus vacation rental restrictions).”
“Most of the tourists that I see coming into my area are staying in vacation rentals,” James said. “We see people gathering in groups on the beach. I also see the tourists shopping in grocery stores, and if they are infected and aren’t careful, they could spread it to another person. We worry about the multiplier effect.”