Hawaii’s low COVID-19 infection and mortality rates have increased calls to start reopening the state’s economy — but support to restart tourism is still mixed.
It’s a hopeful sign for some that several of Oahu’s shopping malls and retail centers will reopen Friday following reopenings Monday on Maui and last week on Kauai and Hawaii island. Also reopening Friday are Kauai’s beaches, which are part of a two-week pilot program that allows people to utilize the beach under certain restrictions designed to minimize the spread of COVID-19.
Tourism, however, remains under strict lockdown as 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.
“We will be very careful in reopening domestic and international travel because of the continuing virus activity around the globe, which is very different from what we are seeing here in Hawaii,” Ige said. “At the start of the pandemic, most if not all of our cases were travel-related. So we must remain vigilant and take small steps toward reopening travel to the islands in our effort to avoid a resurgence in cases in 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 Tuesday, the Hawaii Tourism Authority reported only 7,392 visitors came to Hawaii. That’s significantly fewer than the 856,250 visitors that came to Hawaii in April 2019.
The devastating drop in tourism has collapsed the main driver for Hawaii’s economy and led to a staggering loss of jobs and a corresponding increase in human service needs.
Ige has said there is no explicit timeline for tourism to reopen, which will depend on data. It’s also going to hinge on the community’s tolerance for risk, which still seems rather tepid. The quest to find balance has become a political push and pull in Hawaii as it has around the country.
Kauai Mayor Derek S.K. Kawakami signed an emergency rule Wednesday to extend the mandatory 14-day self-quarantine for incoming passengers to Kauai through June. Ige hasn’t indicated if he’ll extend the state’s quarantine past May 31, but did approve Kawakami’s request.
“We have taken temporary control over the coronavirus with our aggressive restrictions, and we feel we can begin to ease them in a responsible manner,” Kawakami said in a statement. “That said, the risk of the virus returning is most clearly associated with incoming travelers, whether residents or visitors, so we feel it is necessary to extend the mandatory quarantine.”
Kawakami’s extended quarantine order comes as the state continues to struggle with lockdown loopholes and fears rising visitor counts could cause the spread of COVID-19.
Keith Vieira, principal of KV & Associates, Hospitality Consulting, said hotels have supported the quarantine in the interest of public safety. However, now, “it’s time for some bravery and risk. We have to set a date to reopen tourism and the Governor should be leading these directives.”
If the other islands also extend the quarantine, Vieira said accommodations and airlines will lose some of the bookings that they were taking in anticipation of a July 1 reopening date.
“If June 30 is the end of the quarantine, we won’t see tourism reopening on July 1,” Vieira said. “Hotels that have been closed will need 30 to 60 days to get ready to reopen. They need time to order food and supplies and train for new safety protocols. “
Vieira said it’s also likely that most members of the state’s visitor industry won’t reopen with a demand-dropping quarantine in place. After all, the Hawaii Tourism Authority reported that only 264 visitors came to Hawaii on Tuesday.
The count is a “rounding error” for most of the visitor industry, Vieira said. Still, it was the third-highest visitor count of the quarantine coming just behind Tuesday and March 26.
The rise is part of the reason that the Senate Special Committee on COVID-19 has been putting pressure on the state Department of Transportation and HTA to tighten loopholes in airport screening and enforcement.
The Senate committee has asked Mayor Kirk Caldwell to step up quarantine enforcement. They’ve also asked the courts to use ankle bracelets on any tourists cited for violating quarantine rules. A future fine and court date is not a deterrent for tourists, they say.
Other politicians, including Lt. Gov. Josh Green and U.S. Rep. Ed Case (D-Hawaii), have brought up testing as a way to diminish some of the risk involved with reopening tourism.
Case has asked the Federal Aviation Administration to respond by Wednesday to his request to allow Hawaii to require testing of all intended passengers, including airline crew, prior to boarding direct flights to Hawaii. Case said such testing could include fever testing and, as available, on-site rapid COVID-19 testing.
The continued arrival of air passengers in Hawaii “in increasing numbers, with an ineffective post-arrival quarantine, constitutes an unacceptable risk, and it is reasonable for Hawaii to seek to institute pre-boarding conditions to minimize this risk,” Case said in a letter to FAA Administrator Steve Dickson.
Moreover, Case said such requirements will have a role to play in the future of Hawaii tourism, which can’t recover unless passengers feel safe taking planes and getting off in Hawaii. Residents also will need to feel safe about welcoming them, he said.
Green said he’s seeking feedback on a “Travel with Aloha” idea, which would require travelers to get tested for COVID-19 and receive negative results before coming to Hawaii.
Green said Iceland, Guam and Dubai-based airline Emirates have asked for testing before people travel. There’s talk in Japan of using a test that provides results in a minute, he said.
“When we do open up to tourism, we want to be very safe and we want to welcome travelers because we are going to go from …very low rates of COVID to obviously something higher,” Green said. “We need to make sure it’s safe for our community.”