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Hawaii vacation rentals use loopholes to skirt quarantine

Vacation rentals, which have been ruled nonessential businesses statewide as government tries to stop the spread of COVID-19, are still drawing visitors to Hawaii.

On March 26 the state began a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine for trans-Pacific passengers, which was expanded April 1 to interisland passengers. From the quarantine’s start through Monday, the Hawaii Tourism Authority reported, only 7,128 visitors came to Hawaii.

On Monday, 286 visitors came to the state, the most to arrive here since the start of the quarantine, when 268 passengers came. That worries some Hawaii residents and lawmakers who are working to close loopholes in the quarantine and hold more violators accountable.

It’s not known how many visitors stayed in vacation rentals since the lockdowns began. However, on Monday at least 14% of the visitors who filled out the optional backside of the Hawaii Agriculture Declaration Form said they planned to stay at a vacation rental accommodation, ranging from a private or shared room to a whole unit.

Moreover, on Tuesday a new report came out showing that Hawaii’s vacation rental market was affected by reduced travel demand from COVID-19 fears and tourism lockdowns in March, but not nearly to the same degree as hotels, which are considered essential businesses.

In March the monthly supply of statewide vacation rentals was 871,500 unit nights, and monthly demand was 557,400 unit nights, resulting in an average monthly unit occupancy of 64%, a nearly 15-percentage- point drop from March 2019. In comparison, Hawaii’s hotel occupancy was nearly 45% in March 2020, a more than 34-percentage-point drop from the year-earlier period.

That’s concerning given that vacation rentals are considered nonessential businesses across all islands, and visitors aren’t allowed to stay there. It’s one of the reasons that the Senate Special Committee on COVID-19, the state Department of Transportation and HTA have been working to tighten loopholes in airport screening and enforcement.

The stakes are high if they don’t get it right.

One new confirmed coronavirus case on Oahu was announced Tuesday, which raised the statewide total to 635. State Department of Health officials said that the new case was “an out-of-state resident who was screened at the airport and subsequently tested positive.”

Hawaii’s first case of COVID-19 was a visitor and reported Feb. 14. The state began testing on Feb. 28 and had its first positive test result March 6.

About 90% of the people in Hawaii who have been infected are now classified as released from isolation.

The state’s coronavirus death toll remained at 17, unchanged from Monday.

Hawaii’s low COVID-19 infection and mortality rates have increased calls to start reopening the economy, which has seen its top industry, tourism, collapse. However, Gov. David Ige and state health officials continue to stress the importance of staying vigilant and preparing for a potentially stronger second wave of the virus.

Despite efforts to improve passenger quarantines, the Senate committee said it continues to receive reports from members of the public who have observed “travelers blatantly violating” the orders.

“Disturbingly, we have also received reports that the City and County of Honolulu has avoided addressing these public concerns of non-compliance with regularity,” the committee said in a letter that it sent Tuesday to Mayor Kirk Caldwell urging him to come up with a more stringent quarantine enforcement plan by Friday.

“We request that your administration make the enforcement of Hawaii’s quarantine orders a priority by investigating and arresting people who violate them in our community, including returning residents and vacation rentals, which are currently classified as a non-essential business,” the letter said.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said it’s the state that must step up. Caldwell said passengers shouldn’t be allowed out of the airport unless they are staying at a hotel or with friends and family who can vouch for them.

On Monday as many as 113 out of 225 visitors who filled out the agricultural declaration’s questions about lodging, or some 50%, said they planned to stay with friends and relatives.

“The City and County of Honolulu cannot be the babysitter to make sure someone is staying at their house 24 hours a day, seven days a week until the 14 days runs out,” Caldwell said.

The mayor said airport screening currently doesn’t provide the city with enough timely information.

HTA provides the Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting with a list of visitor arrivals; however, the list does not specify whether the lodging is a short-term rental, said DPP spokesman Curtis Lum.

“We analyze the list and select what we believe are short-term rentals. We then send a letter to the registered property owner, reminding them that rentals of less than 30 days are considered nonessential businesses and not allowed to operate during the length of the mayor’s and governor’s emergency directives,” Lum said. “We ask that the activity be halted immediately.”

Lum said DPP has sent letters to about 100 owners. The letter says if the property is being used as a bed-and-breakfast home or transient vacation rental, DPP “may refer the matter for appropriate follow-up action.”

DPP warns in the letter that violators of the governor’s or mayor’s orders could be charged with a misdemeanor and face a $5,000 fine. Illegal short-term rentals also could be subject to daily fines ranging from $1,000 to $10,000, the letter said.

Lum said DPP has not yet issued any notices of violations related to the emergency directives.

Caldwell said the state also should back local government when violators are caught.

“The Police Department is actually warning and arresting people for violating quarantine, and when they are taken for booking, they are released,” Caldwell said. “There is a state policy from the judicial branch that says because of the pandemic, we don’t want to have a crowding of our prisons and jails, so they are released back into the community again.”

Waikiki resident Rick Smith said more oversight is needed. Smith said he’s already made multiple reports to the COVID-19 Task Force and to DPP regarding a situation in Waikiki where a visitor who arrived at a vacation rental before the quarantine started has since been joined by a mainland friend.

“The guest told the task force that she’s been in quarantine. But people aren’t allowed to stay in vacation rentals, where there’s not enough oversight,” Smith said. “I’m also concerned because the first visitor has been coming and going freely, and they are sharing a studio — that’s not a very effective quarantine.”

So far, Smith has been dissatisfied with the response that he’s gotten from officials.

“We can’t be sloppy with this thing, because the community’s health is too important,” he said. “It might be a very small ember, but if you don’t keep it under control, the next thing you know, you’ll have a raging fire.”

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