Hawaii’s economic forecast is riddled with uncertainty, making it nearly impossible for the Council on Revenues — tasked with predicting how much the state will collect in taxes each year — to accurately gauge how deep the recession will be or how long it might last.
Among the keys to clearing the haze: a straightforward strategy for restarting tourism. Given Hawaii’s success in “flattening the curve,” ranking us among states with the lowest per capita COVID-19 infection rates, the tourism industry is rightly clamoring for reopening benchmarks.
Hotels and other businesses looking at several weeks of prep work should be provided with a tentative timeline for the gradual phasing-in of the state’s economic engine — now stalled by 14-day quarantines in place for all incoming travelers.
Further, the industry stands to benefit from state-issued guidance that sets coronavirus-related expectations for employers, employees and tourists.
Time is of the essence, as other destinations around the world — Australia, New Zealand, Iceland and Greece among them — have announced reopening dates or are seriously moving toward them with clear-cut standards. On the U.S. mainland, highway checkpoints in the Florida Keys come down today, and much of the Las Vegas Strip is expected to reboot on Thursday.
In the case of Las Vegas, the state’s Gaming Control Board has released a set of rules for hotel-casinos, including social-distancing and testing directives; and mandatory mask-wearing and temperature checks for employees and guests, respectively. Here, the Hawaii Tourism Authority, a state agency that operates semi-autonomously, should be taking a lead role in setting ground rules.
In consultation with the state Health Department, the Hawaii Lodging &Tourism Association, a 700-member trade organization, has drafted COVID-19 health, safety and security standards. But Unite Here Local 5, which represents some 12,000 hospitality, health care and food service workers, contends that the “Safe Hotels, Safe Hawaii” report lacks needed workforce protections.
Among the stepped-up protections the union wants: a plan for testing workers and visitors; and a commitment from employers or the Legislature to provide health care benefits for those who don’t have enough hours to qualify or are furloughed. Both requests make some sense, within reasonable limits.
More than three-quarters of the union’s members have become unemployed due to the coronavirus outbreak. Through September, most Local 5 hotel workers can secure health care coverage by way of a union trust fund. After that, there’s uncertainty.
State lawmakers should consider replenishing the fund with yet-to-be-allocated federal CARES Act money. This is the sort of stopgap relief the crushed industry’s workers need to return to what are now COVID-19 front-line jobs.
In regard to testing for infection, more of it will be needed when travel ramps up. In the interest of safeguarding both public and economic health, the state should issue updated testing guidelines that bolster confidence among industry workers and tourists. Such guidance can help smooth reopening of more than 130 shuttered hotels.
In a sensibly cautious approach to welcoming back visitors, several state lawmakers are backing the idea of forming a “travel bubble” with Japan that would allow for relaxed travel restrictions. Internationally, bubbles are in the making among destinations with low infection and death rates. Hawaii certainly qualifies.
In the absence of an effective COVID-19 vaccine or treatment, economic forecasts here and elsewhere will include a lot of guesswork. Tourism in the islands will likely be contending with economic stress for several years. Now’s the time for industry and state leaders to forge forward with reopening benchmarks.