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Tourists using transient rentals to bypass Hawaii quarantine restrictions prove hard to track

                                The normally bustling corner of Kalakaua Avenue at Royal Hawaiian Avenue was virtually deserted, April 3.
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The normally bustling corner of Kalakaua Avenue at Royal Hawaiian Avenue was virtually deserted, April 3.

COVID-19 crackdowns on transient vacation rentals, which aren’t considered essential businesses right now, are proving just as hard for the counties to enforce as the laws meant to regulate them.

It’s suspected that many of the 2,970 visitors who arrived in Hawaii over the past 23 days stayed in transient vacation rentals.

At the end of last year, the Hawaii Tourism Authority reported there were some 33,118 advertised TVRs, which comprised about one-third of the state’s total lodging supply. No one really knows how many visitors are planning to stay in TVRs, since information collected from arriving passengers doesn’t distinguish vacation rentals from other Hawaii addresses.

The data shortfall is another loophole in enforcing Gov. David Ige’s 14-day mandatory self-quarantine orders for arriving passengers on trans-Pacific and interisland flights.

Hawaii state law requires that all passengers arriving in Hawaii complete an agricultural declaration form. The main purpose of the form is to prevent foreign plants, animals and pests from entering Hawaii. During the COVID-19 lockdown, the form also has another purpose, which is to identify where quarantining passengers are staying.

The form asks for the person’s home address as well as for a Hawaii address or hotel. But passengers aren’t required by law to fill out the back part of the agricultural form that distinguishes a stay with friends and family from one in a now-illegal transient vacation rental or bed-and-breakfast home.

Hawaii Tourism Authority President and CEO Chris Tatum said the HTA, the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, and badged furloughed employees from Roberts Hawaii are improving the way arriving passengers are tracked. By midweek, HTA plans to add extra verification steps to confirm information from arriving passengers.

HTA Chief Administrative Officer Keith Regan told Hawaii senators at a COVID-19 hearing Friday that screeners will start testing passenger cellphones at the airport to ensure the numbers are good. 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 noncompliant visitors from slipping through the cracks. One recent example was Aarona Browning-Lopez, a 37-year-old woman who was arrested Thursday for violating COVID-19 emergency rules. Browning-Lopez was sent back to Los Angeles on Friday, but the episode was discomfiting for officials after it was discovered she was allowed to enter Hawaii despite only providing a post office box for an address.

An honor system

Tatum said improvements will help catch more noncompliant visitors, but keeping up with visitors at vacation rentals remains difficult.

“It is a self-quarantine, which is really kind of an honor system for the most part,” Tatum said. “Most people are doing the right thing, but I’m sure there are some people that just don’t want to follow the rules. If we find them, we’ll report them and address that.”

Tatum said hotels provide an extra level of security because tourism officials can notify them that quarantining passengers are on the way and follow up to make sure they checked in. If visitors leave their rooms, hotels also have called police and tourism officials to report violations, he said.

When visitors aren’t in a hotel, Tatum said, there’s “no hard line to call or someone to check the room.”

HTA and HVCB staff are calling visitors three times to follow up on whether they are complying with the quarantine. Visitors who don’t respond to any of the three calls are referred to county law enforcement agencies.

According to Tatum, since the quarantine began March 26, HTA and HVCB have checked up on visitors through more than 7,600 calls plus emails. He said staying at vacation rentals isn’t allowed during the COVID-19 lockdown, as the establishments have been ruled nonessential businesses across the islands.

“It’s up to the counties to enforce TVR violations,” Tatum said.

However, enforcement also is challenging for local police. Waikiki Lanais owner Kelly McDonald only ended up frustrated after reporting apparent violations in his condominium during the second week of April.

“I was concerned about seeing three new families and faces in our building that were clearly vacationers in rental cars who had gone outside of quarantine and came back with beach paraphernalia, a shopping wagon of groceries and picnic stuff like they had just gone to the park,” McDonald said.

McDonald said police responded promptly but took at face value what the visitors told them — that they had arrived prior to the quarantine. Stronger enforcement is needed during this public health concern, he said.

“It’s just a math question. The more comings and goings, and the more ephemeral those comings and goings are, the greater exposure risk for people like my wife that are immuno-compromised or the kupuna or keiki in our building,” McDonald said.

Enforcement challenges

Even Kauai County, which has been aggressive in its COVID-19 lockdowns and in contacting vacation rentals, has met challenges.

Ka‘aina Hull, Kauai County planning director, said the department notified all TVR owners who hold nonconforming certificates that they must not book rooms or advertise during the lockdown. But it’s still reaching out to hosting sites and scanning the internet to find owners who are advertising availability during the lockdown, which runs through May 3.

Hull said staff found the vast majority of TVR operations had removed availability, although not all were compliant.

“Generally we have 3,500 to 4,000 advertisements; we’ve identified roughly 1,000 are still up,” Hull said. “We haven’t cited anyone yet.”

So far, Honolulu’s Department of Planning and Permitting hasn’t cited any vacation rentals for violations either. However, Mayor Kirk Caldwell said Thursday the city wants tourism and airport officials to provide more accurate addresses for where people are staying.

“If someone is coming to Honolulu and lands at (Daniel K. Inouye International Airport) and they are going to stay at a vacation rental, they can’t,” Caldwell said. “They should be sent home.”

Worse yet, Caldwell said, “some of the guys who are advertising and inviting people here are illegal vacation rentals,” meaning they aren’t among those permitted to operate even when stay-in-place orders are lifted.

Retired Honolulu Police Department Lt. Phillip Lavarias suggests the state begin collecting more information from passengers, such as date of birth and other identification details. If that information were added to the HTA database and shared with law enforcement, Lavarias said police could check the status of quarantine orders much like they check for outstanding warrants.

“We’re lacking the part of the enforcement that tells us when someone arrived,” Lavarias said. “Without a database, it’s impossible to enforce unless someone admits to a violation.”

HPD spokeswoman Michelle Yu said HTA’s information has not been given to patrol officers or dispatchers.

Lavarias suggests agencies work together to step up enforcement of quarantine orders for visitors and residents alike.

“Apparently, we’re not having the level of enforcement that we need because people aren’t getting the message. I took a drive through Haleiwa Wednesday and it was like the weekend. There was almost a traffic jam at Turtle Beach. People aren’t taking it seriously.

“I worry about that because it’s destroyed our economy and I worry about my mom, my elderly neighbors and everybody.”

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