A few months ago, a University of Washington study predicted that if a COVID-19 surge overwhelmed Hawaii’s health care system, the result could be a peak of 12 deaths daily during the first week in May. Questioned about the study in early April, Gov. David Ige rightly said the dire forecast was off-base because it failed to take into account Hawaii’s 14-day quarantine for most air travel.
There’s no doubt that the firmly enforced quarantine, bringing travel in and out of the state to a near-halt, played a central role in flattening the disease curve. But unfortunately, it’s also done the same to much of Hawaii’s economy.
Now, with preparations underway to lift the inter- island quarantine on June 16, Hawaii aims to further reopen the kamaaina economy, and that’s good news. But it will be an ongoing, delicate balance to do so, while maintaining Hawaii’s ranking among states with the lowest per capita COVID-19 infection rates — and with a total of 17 coronavirus deaths, the lowest mortality rate in the nation.
Ige and other officials have based the stepped reopening of public life on public health conditions: the count of cases, health-care system capacity for handling caseload, and ability to keep pace with prioritized testing and contact tracing. Because the state is faring well on each, ability to assume more risk must be tested — Hawaii’s economic health depends on it.
Starting June 16, interisland travelers will undergo temperature checks and fill out a form specifying travel history and where they’ll be staying. Also, clearance of a cross-check against a quarantine database will be required to advance to regular check-in procedures. The new requirements will help build a much-needed framework for tracking coronavirus spread.
Yes, this will mean longer waits in airport lobbies freshly fitted with plexiglass shields and social- distancing signage. As a means to stifle the impulse to grumble, perhaps airports also should post updates on the lethality of the pandemic. As of last week, the coronavirus had killed more than 100,000 people in the United States.
During a Monday briefing, state Senate President Ronald Kouchi pointed out that Hawaii’s achievement in “crushing” the curve has come with great personal and financial sacrifice.
Further, a just-released model by the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization predicts an out-migration of 25,000 people or more from Hawaii by 2022, many of whom will leave to find work on the mainland as this state struggles to restart the tourism-fueled economic engine.
But lifting the 14-day quarantine beyond the scope of interisland travel means contending with a much more complex test of risk management.
On that score, state officials are sensibly looking at starting with a trans-Pacific lift limited to “travel bubble” agreements, possibly with Japan, Australia and other international destinations with low COVID infection and death rates. That would enable well- considered resumption of outside-Hawaii travel while minimizing risk of a coronavirus second wave.
Right now, Hawaiian Airlines has 20 daily round-trip flights between Honolulu and Lihue, Kona, Hilo and Kahului that are just 20% to 30% full. As the carrier readies to meet quarantine-free travel standards and demands, residents who can afford to support local business recovery should consider an interisland staycation or ohana reconnection.
All residents can help the state move forward by continuing to assume personal responsibility that includes mask-wearing and social-distancing habits. An uptick in COVID-19 cases, due to interisland travel, is expected and can be managed, according to state officials — but an unwelcome surge would likely send Hawaii retreating behind another quarantine order.