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Editorial: Isles must close lodging loophole

The screen Hawaii has erected to keep out most new arrivals to the islands was never going to be impermeable, but it at least needs to be a barrier that’s significantly daunting — both to those coming in, and to those who are accommodating them during their stay.

Community-safety goals will never be reached if an easy fib is all that’s needed to get around the rules — rules that are meant to tamp down the spread of the coronavirus. A lax approach will only invite more scofflaws to flout the regulation, a new spike locally in the COVID-19 pandemic and a future clamp-down that will deal yet another blow to an economy that’s already suffering.

And there must be wider awareness of the conditions placed upon arrivals so that people know what to expect in advance — and believe that the state is enforcing the protocol. Visitors likely are accustomed to standards set in other states that, lacking geographic isolation, maintain far less vigilance.

Of course, vigilance here has shown some serious gaps, too. Loopholes in the state’s 14-day quarantine program have raised some justifiable concern among state lawmakers that officials need to get ahead of visitors trying to escape enforcement. One that has been especially troublesome is the “family and friends” escape hatch.

Since March 26, passengers arriving at the airports — residents as well as tourists — must disclose their accommodations location in the form they fill out on the plane. More than half the visitors who arrived Friday and Saturday on Oahu described their accommodations as “friends and family,” and that’s tough to check.

Some of these claims are legitimate — friends and family do have reasons to return — but many more could be those who have made formal and informal arrangements to stay with people opening their homes to visitors.

There are the thousands of short-term rental “hosts” who were violating county laws by renting out their unpermitted rooms or units for vacation stays. They already know they are subject to fines if they are caught doing that. It might be easier for counties to catch them, too, because the state is refining airport procedures, requiring the address to be listed on the revised form.

Others, stung by the loss of income the lingering shutdown of most businesses has caused, may be newcomers to the business, inviting people to stay within their homes using a “couch surfing” app or some other connection. Couch-surfing traditionally doesn’t involve lodging charges, but those certainly can be in the picture.

State Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz has been one raising concerns. He asserted that the local hosts should share liability if a visitor breaks the rules of the 14-day mandatory quarantine; new arrivals can’t leave their accommodations for anything short of a medical emergency.

Whether or not the state could make each case stick legally, residents do need to know that they would be morally accountable for bad outcomes by purposely bringing a stranger into their dwelling. That means possible exposure, for their own household and others, to the potentially deadly coronavirus.

Other enforcement strategies should be evaluated closely. Gov. David Ige said on Monday the state is considering photographing visitors on arrival to help with surveillance, but this also could leave an indelible mark on the industry, if it’s done intrusively.

There is a line the state needs to walk carefully, but there is also a strong message that must be sent. Visitors must know Hawaii is serious about guarding its own safety now, and in the future.

That will build trust among residents — trust that’s essential to welcoming tourists back, once the industry is better prepared for their gradual return.

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