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Tracking of arriving visitors is improving, Hawaii tourism leaders tell lawmakers

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UPDATE: 6:45 p.m.

Hawaii state legislators looking to tighten enforcement of quarantine orders for arriving passengers, especially visitors, were told today that tourism and airport officials are making improvements to the verification and tracking process.

Hawaii Tourism Authority, which along with the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, has been assisting the state Airports Division with airport screening, said it is adding extra verification steps to confirm information from arriving passengers. HTA also is working with other state agencies to come up with a plan to randomly track residents, too.

HTA Chief Administrative Officer Keith Regan told Hawaii senators at a COVID-19 hearing this afternoon that airport screeners will start testing passenger cell phones at the airport to ensure the numbers are good. Tourism workers have been calling visitors up to three times during their stay to follow up. Visitors that don’t respond to any of the three calls or issues reported by hotels are referred to county law enforcement agencies.

Regan said screeners also will start searching property tax records to verify that passengers have provided actual addresses. The new steps are expected to prevent non-compliant visitors from slipping through the cracks.

HTA and HVCB staff had been calling hotels to alert them that they have visitors arriving that must quarantine. However, they didn’t have a program in place to provide the same level of scrutiny for residential addresses or even to verify that the visitor had put down a real address.

These moves are only the latest attempts to close loopholes in the mandatory 14-day self-quarantine orders, which began March 26 for trans-Pacific passengers and April 1 for interisland.

Aarona Browning-Lopez, 37, was arrested Thursday for allegedly violating emergency rules in place because of the COVID-19 outbreak. Browning Lopez was allowed into Hawaii despite listing her addresses as a P.O. Box.

She is being sent back to Los Angeles today through an HTA-funded COVID-19 flight assistance program run by the Visitor Aloha Society of Hawaii. Since the program started last week, VASH has helped return 16 visitors to their homes.

HTA President and CEO Chris Tatum said, “Since the beginning of the pandemic, the focus of HTA has been to move 250,000 visitors out of the state. We went from 30,000 a day to less than 130 a day average. We’ve closed 129 hotels. The folks that are still coming here, just so it’s clear to you, I don’t want them coming here… it’s not a good experience. I don’t want them bringing the challenges or the virus or putting any more pressure on our health system. “

The count of trans-Pacific passengers coming to Hawaii was greatly reduced Thursday, but about a third were visitors.

HTA reported today that 386 trans-Pacific passengers arrived on Thursday, including 110 visitors and 157 residents. The count also included 54 airline crew members, 20 transit passengers who are catching other flights and 44 intended new residents for Oahu and one for Kona.

Hawaii residents were the largest category comprising 41% of the total. Visitors include everyone with an out-of-state ID, who plans to leave Hawaii after a period of time. Intended residents are those with out-of-state IDs, who say they plan to stay here.

Regan said adding resident checks could occur as soon as more workers are trained. Since residents are the largest group of daily passengers, Regan envisions limited calls to random samples.

The Senate committee praised HTA for working to address their public safety concerns. However, they did take HTA and the state Airports Division to task for paying $30 an hour to furloughed badged workers from Roberts Hawaii to assist in the airport screening rather than deploying idled state workers to meet the need.

State Sen. Donna Kim (D-Kapalama, Alewa, Kalihi Valley, Fort Shafter, Moanalua Gardens & Valley, portions of Halawa and Aiea) asked, “Why are we paying them when we have people state workers on the payroll who are not working?”

Regan said HTA isn’t wedded to using contractors and could explore other arrangements.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE

The Hawaii State Senate Special Committee on COVID-19 convened to assess the state’s coronavirus outbreak planning, starting at 11 a.m.

The committee will meet with people including: Linda Chu Takayama, Office of the Governor; Ryker Wada, Director of the Dept. of Human Resource Development; Scott Murakami, Director of Labor and Industrial Relations; Attorney General Clare Connors; Catherine Awakuni Colon, Director of Commerce and Consumer Affairs; Ross Higashi, Deputy Director of the Dept. of Transportation, airports division; and Chris Tatum, CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

The session was livestreamed on Olelo.

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