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Passenger quarantines aren’t likely to end once Hawaii reopens

  • JAMM AQUINO / APRIL 18
                                State officials are considering more invasive ways to track tourists. Last week the street was bare in front of the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center in Waikiki.

    JAMM AQUINO / APRIL 18

    State officials are considering more invasive ways to track tourists. Last week the street was bare in front of the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center in Waikiki.

When Hawaii opens up, the passenger quarantine isn’t expected to end right away.

It’s going to be here for a while, and state officials are discussing more invasive ways to keep tourists in check, such as ankle bracelets similar to those used to monitor criminal suspects or GPS tracking, Hawaii Attorney General Clare Connors told the Senate Special Committee on COVID-19 Friday.

On March 26, Hawaii became the country’s first state to implement a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine order for incoming travelers, which was extended to interisland travelers on April 1.

“Before the 14-day quarantine, we saw large numbers of people. After the 14-day quarantine was imposed, we saw many, many fewer people coming into the state,” Connors said. Based on what she’s hearing from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, Gen. Kenneth Hara and Gov. David Ige, “we are going to be keeping the 14-day quarantine in place for a while.”

Connors said the 14-day quarantine, which is motivated by a health and safety crisis, meets constitutional requirements. More invasive ideas to tighten enforcement have been brought up, but they need to be vetted, she said.

These include:

>> Requiring quarantining visitors to wear ankle bracelets that ping when they leave their rooms;

>> Employing facial recognition software;

>> Using 24/7 GPS monitoring;

>> Requiring visitors to stay in designated locations, which might be guarded.

Connors said she’s having conversations with the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, the state Department of Transportation and law enforcement officials about designating specific quarantine locations and supplying ankle bracelets to one or all hotels.

Enforcement has been top of mind for lawmakers, whose criticism of quarantine loopholes inspired recent improvements to the passenger quarantine. In addition to getting a temperature check, an arriving passenger must sign a self-quarantine form, a legal document that acknowledges the person understands violating the order is a criminal offense subject to a $5,000 fine and/or a year imprisonment.

Airport representatives will verify the accuracy of a traveler’s information, including identity, mobile phone number and address. For visitors, airport representatives will call hotels to confirm reservations. If a visitor is not staying at a hotel, the address listed by the visitor will be checked on county property tax sites.

Lodging information will be provided to the counties so they can ensure the address is not a vacation rental. None of the counties is allowing operation of vacation rentals, which aren’t considered essential businesses during the COVID-19 lockdowns.

Hawaii Tourism Authority personnel are still calling visitors to check on them. Additionally, 20 state DOT employees have been assigned to make calls verifying that residents are following quarantine protocols.

Hawaii’s visitor industry has supported the quarantine and recent improvements. But most members don’t see it as a part of a long-term strategy for Hawaii’s tourism recovery, said Mufi Hannemann, president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association.

“If they still feel a quarantine needs to be in place, then we shouldn’t open,” Hannemann told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “It’s not going to be that aloha experience. OK, the world has changed, but let’s be careful of the kinds of things we ask people to do when they get here. I don’t want to see ankle bracelets get beyond the vetting point.”

Part of the reason is that traveler quarantines and onerous restrictions kill visitor demand. Prior to COVID-19 lockdowns, the state was welcoming close to 30,000 passengers a day. In April 2019, 856,250 visitors came to Hawaii.

In the 29 days since the quarantine began, only 3,644 trans-Pacific visitors, or roughly 126 per day, came to the state.

Hawaii Tourism Authority President and CEO Chris Tatum told the Senate committee that tourism is not likely to return to pre-COVID-19 levels with a quarantine in place.

“Our normal visitors have no desire to go through this,” said Tatum, who has supported state efforts to collapse tourism and temporarily suspend visitor demand.

Keith Vieira, principal of KV & Associates, Hospitality Consulting, told the Star- Advertiser the emphasis during county and state lockdowns has been on tracking visitors; now it needs to turn to traveler testing so Hawaii can reopen safely.

“In my view, we shouldn’t reopen until we can test. We shouldn’t do anything in the short term to jeopardize the safety of the community. Because of our isolation, we have the chance to be the model for how to reopen leisure tourism safely,” Vieira said.

Jerry Gibson, Turtle Bay Resort vice president, said he agrees rapid testing will put Hawaii on the best course for reopening, which shouldn’t be rushed.

“There’s always going to be pressure to reopen quickly. Sadly, businesses are in poor shape. Some are on the brink. Almost 300,000 people are out of work. Everyone is anxious to get them back to work,” Gibson told the newspaper. “But if we reopen too early, it would be a devastating mistake. We’d be right back to where we were in the beginning. It’s best if people can be as patient as possible and ride it out until the quarantine is over and we can reevaluate.”

Gibson doesn’t know how soon Hawaii tourism can safely reopen, but said if the government restrictions end May 31, July would probably be the earliest.

It’s going to take some time for the more than 129 hotels that voluntarily suspended operations to reopen. Vieira said the industry has been encouraged by how reservations are shaping up for August, September and October.

“Once we start to reopen, the hotels will probably see occupancy in the 20% to 40% range. They’ll still be losing money, but we’ll get more people back to work,” he said.

But Vieira worries the coming tourists will cancel if quarantines are extended and a better reopening strategy is not found.

“We had reservations for June, but they all canceled when the lockdowns were continued,” he said. “Tourism is a very fragile business.”

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