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Hawaii officials pass the blame for loopholes in mandatory quarantine for incoming passengers

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                                Alaska Airlines staff check in passengers in Lobby 5 of Terminal 2 of Daniel K. Inouye International Airport, May 1.


    Alaska Airlines staff check in passengers in Lobby 5 of Terminal 2 of Daniel K. Inouye International Airport, May 1.

Let the sniping begin.

Hawaii’s plan for economic and community recovery and resilience hinges on collaboration, but city and state leaders are still fighting over who is to blame for loopholes in the mandatory 14-day self-quarantine for incoming passengers.

Without rapid testing or contact tracing, the quarantine remains the state’s main way — besides temperature scans at the airport — to reduce travel-related risks of the new coronavirus. While COVID-19 in Hawaii is now a community problem, it first came to the islands because visitors and locals brought it from somewhere else.

The quarantines have kept passenger counts well below last year when most of the 30,000 or so passengers arriving daily were visitors. From the quarantine’s March 26 start through Wednesday, the Hawaii Tourism Authority reported, only 7,638 visitors came to Hawaii.

Only 246 visitors came to Hawaii on Wednesday. However, as other destinations begin to reopen, some community members and lawmakers fear that without a strong quarantine, Hawaii’s low rate of COVID-19 cases and deaths will rise. Unfortunately, they disagree on how to fix the trans-Pacific quarantine as well as other issues central to the reopening of the state’s economy.

Gov. David Ige said Thursday he plans to extend the 14-day quarantine through June 30 as well as his “safer-at-home” order. He defended the state’s testing track record, but Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell is pushing for more testing.

Dining out by June?

Caldwell has extended his “safer-at-home” order through June 30, but said he’s asked Ige to allow restaurants to reopen for indoor dining by June 5. He also plans to ask the state to reopen Oahu’s state beaches as long as coronavirus cases remain low.

“After dueling news conferences by the governor and the mayor with orders that change daily, it is time for the mayor to work with the City Council to put together a plan that is easy to follow — and which makes sense,” said Honolulu City Council member Kym Pine, chairwoman of the Business, Economic Development and Tourism Committee.

“Many businesses will be closed forever by the end of June. It is time to set a clear plan of testing, tracking and tracing cases so that we can open safely. Hawaii’s economy will never recover if we don’t help businesses soon,” Pine said.

Tourism leaders have said visitor counts will remain low as long as passenger quarantines remain; however, the Senate Special Committee on COVID-19 has continued to press county, state and tourism officials to improve the process.

They’ve visited the airport and grilled HTA, the Department of Transportation and the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency. They’ve asked Caldwell for more enforcement support. They’ve also asked the courts to consider putting ankle bracelets on travelers who are caught violating the quarantines.

‘Insane’ process

Caldwell called the airport quarantine process “insane” during a Thursday news conference.

Caldwell was critical of a “lack of oversight controls” at the airport, where he said 15 people have been allowed to report to the city Provisional Outdoor Screening and Triage (POST) facility with no place to stay. He said the state courts also are releasing quarantine violators on their own recognizance because of a state Judiciary pandemic program to lower the jail population.

DOT Director Jade Butay disputes Caldwell’s claim that 15 passengers were sent to the city’s POST facility.

“Visitors who arrive without a verifiable reservation are given the opportunity to make a confirmed reservation, or they will be put on a flight back to where they came from. If they refuse either of those options, they are sent to law enforcement. We would be happy to verify this if the city provides the names of the 15 people they believe to be incoming passengers,” Butay said.

Butay said, “Front-line employees at the airport are diligently working to verify passenger information as the people get off the plane and are all aware of the procedure. There are supervisors and law enforcement monitoring the process.”

Rentals nonessential

Caldwell said he’s also concerned that visitors are being allowed to stay in vacation rentals. Short-term rentals, offering stays of under 30 days, are still considered nonessential businesses on Oahu, Maui, Kauai and Hawaii island.

Andreea Grigore, vice president of rentals for Elite Pacific Properties, said, “There are many other professional companies just like us who are playing by the rules, and it saddens me that a handful of illegal rentals are contributing to painting such a negative picture of our industry.”

“We are a local business and job creator, and all the properties we manage are legal vacation rentals. In addition to our full-time staff of 20, we support hundreds of contractors that help upkeep the properties in our portfolio and who are suffering through significant financial hardship right now,” Grigore said.

Only 10 of the 246 visitors who arrived Wednesday indicated that they planned to stay in a vacation rental. As many as 119 said they planned to stay with family and friends.

Undoubtedly, some Hawaii residents are playing host. However, some visitors who say they are “staying with friends and family” might be skirting emergency orders. In the past some owners of illegal short-term rentals have thwarted zoning inspectors by instructing guests to say they were staying with friends and family.

Honolulu City Council Chairman Emeritus Ron Menor sent a letter to Ige on Thursday strongly requesting that state government do more to stop visitors from staying in short-term rentals during the current public health crisis.

“The fact that airport officials continue to allow entry to travelers who intend to use vacation rentals to self-quarantine, instead of hotels, which have generally demonstrated their capability to enforce your quarantine requirement, not only undermines the mayor’s emergency ban on short-term rentals, but also makes it more difficult for the city to enforce once those travelers depart the airport to their lodging and circulate within the community,” Menor said in his letter.

DOT spokesman Tim Sakahara said passengers who indicate that they are staying at short-term rentals are processed appropriately.

Sakahara said short-term rental passengers may “make a confirmed reservation with a hotel and begin their 14-day mandatory self-quarantine at that hotel; get on the next flight back to their home airport; or if they refuse … they will be referred to law enforcement.”

Jessica Lani Rich, president and CEO of the Visitor Aloha Society of Hawaii, which runs HTA’s COVID-19 flight assistance program, said that since April 6 some 48 visitors have received support to get back home. Only one family out of the visitors VASH sent home had reservations to stay at a vacation rental, she said.

“The owner of the vacation rental rejected them,” she said.

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