On Tuesday, Gov. David Ige announced a relaxing of more business restrictions imposed in response to the coronavirus pandemic, including the controlled reopening of more retail activity. That is a start — and must be done carefully — but there is nothing more critical to the recovery of Hawaii’s traumatized economy than the reboot of tourism.
Coordinated planning should begin urgently. The blueprint must be overseen by someone acting as a state tourism “czar” who can get state buy-in for the strategy, and must be guided by industry experts.
There should be a way to allow measured visitor traffic with greatly reduced risk, an assurance that’s needed if visitors and residents alike are to feel safe enough to engage in business.
How safe is safe enough? That is what the state must settle with the visitor industry, enabling health officials to keep the inevitable increase in coronavirus infections under control.
The first step, as industry executives have asserted this week, are target dates for ending the 14-day quarantine for airline passengers, according to a gradual schedule: first, for interisland trips, and then for a slowly increasing number of arrivals from outside Hawaii.
A target date for the latter, in particular, would provide some certainty. Although clearly difficult, that is indeed necessary for a sector that’s directly responsible for roughly one-fifth of the state’s economy.
And because of its ripple effect — tourism employs people who in turn support other businesses — its shutdown is linked to about half the joblessness that’s occurred since the pandemic mitigation efforts began. About a third of Hawaii’s workforce is now unemployed. This can’t be allowed to persist.
Hawaii hotelier Jerry Gibson and Keith Vieira, principal of KV &Associates, Hospitality Consulting, met on Monday with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser editorial board, pointing out that tourism can’t restart until the external 14-day quarantine on arriving passengers is lifted.
They maintain that hotels and other visitor services are already developing hygiene and distancing protocols for general protection; they added that about 60 days’ lead time is needed to fully prepare.
These protocols should be ultimately adopted as statewide standards of business. The plan also must include provisions for contact tracing in the event of infections with COVID-19.
The target date should be set, but in the near term, waiving of the external quarantine requirement should be conditional. Prospective visitors should be told they need to provide some medical clearance in the pre-boarding sequence en route to Hawaii if they want the quarantine waived. Those who decline would need to enter the two weeks of quarantine that are now required.
Pre-boarding testing is already being required for some international travelers: Airlines based in the United Arab Emirates began such a program in mid-April. Hong Kong also became the first airport to mandate testing for passengers originating from high-risk areas.
However, requiring tests for U.S. travelers, who comprise the majority of Hawaii tourists, could face constitutional challenges. Many airlines are already curbing the passenger load and requiring masks — but that’s not posing the same burden as a medical test mandate.
Assuming they meet the airlines’ travel rules, travelers would come under existing quarantine requirements. Most should be willing to get screened, either at the airport or by another provider, to get a clearance. Averting the 14-day constraint on their movement is the lure.
Whatever protocols emerge, alignment between Hawaii’s tourism sectors and health officials will be critical. And for the foreseeable future, Hawaii’s visitors will have to be part of the solution to a tourism shutdown that must end, and quickly.