A hui led by Lt. Gov. Josh Green is trying to organize a plan to reopen Hawaii tourism this summer with a test-based travel policy that gives incoming passengers an alternative to the state’s mandatory 14-day self-quarantine.
On the surface, Gov. David Ige’s decision Wednesday to extend the quarantine for out-of-state passengers to July 31 ensures most of Hawaii’s visitor industry will remain closed through the peak summer month and will probably miss the lucrative summer season entirely.
Most of Hawaii’s visitor industry can’t begin what is anticipated to be a six-year economic recovery until the quarantine for out-of-state passengers is lifted. But testing might provide a way forward, as it has in other destinations, even if the quarantine is left intact.
French Polynesia will reopen its borders to international tourism July 15 but has put in place passenger requirements that include a compulsory COVID-19 (RT-PCR) test 72 hours before incoming passengers depart.
Those flying into Alaska also may bypass the quarantine if they get tested for COVID-19 no more than 72 hours before departure and show their negative test results to airport screeners. They also may take a COVID-19 test at the Alaska airport upon arrival and self-quarantine until the results come back negative. Otherwise, they must self-quarantine at their own expense for 14 days or the duration of their trip if it’s shorter.
Green, who was asked by Ige to lead an effort to recover tourism, said it was premature to provide specific details about Hawaii’s plan. But insiders say the hui, which has been feverishly meeting with partners in Hawaii and elsewhere, is poised to make a recommendation to Ige that’s similar to what French Polynesia and Alaska have adopted.
“We are exploring national partnerships to make it possible to get tested,” Green said. “The talks are going well, but it would be contingent on the governor’s approval and the expectation that he feels it would be a good program.”
Ige said last week, when he announced a June 16 end to the interisland passenger quarantine, that he would make an announcement this week about a future date to reopen tourism on a broader scale. Following Wednesday’s quarantine extension, few members of Hawaii’s visitor industry expect Ige will turn around his decision that quickly.
Ige made it clear Wednesday that a plan for the broader reopening of tourism was coming soon, but more details needed to be worked out. He supports a multifaceted approach that, in addition to testing, also would include enhanced passenger screening and contact tracing.
Testing is most popular with those who fear reopening tourism might lead to a second wave of infections.
“Most of our tourists come from the U.S. West where case counts are still rising,” Paul Brewbaker, principal of TZ Economics, said Wednesday during a Pacific Asia Travel Association Hawaii chapter economic forum. “In many cities the second wave of 1918-1919 influenza pandemic deaths was worse than the first wave. Whatever we do to reopen air travel, we’re going to have to keep in mind the coronavirus has not gone away — it’s just as infectious as it used to be.”
Brewbaker highly recommended a testing plan put forward Tuesday by the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization for the “Prevention of Travel- Related Reintroduction of COVID-19 Infection in the State of Hawaii.”
In addition to pre-arrival testing and airport testing, Green said Hawaii’s passenger testing program also might include random testing and pooled testing — a group testing process that would potentially allow the state to ramp up testing without burning through as many test kits. If the group test is negative, no further testing is required. If the group test is positive, everyone in the group must be tested individually.
State Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz wrote a letter to Ige on Wednesday urging him to consider pooled testing as an enhancement to current screening and quarantine protocols. Dela Cruz said Dr. Darragh O’Carroll, a Kuakini Medical Center emergency medical physician, brought the idea to him.
“This new testing approach would further ensure that we can increase our capacity to test all travelers in a cost-effective way,” Dela Cruz said in his letter.
Hawaii hotelier Jerry Gibson, who is part of Green’s hui, said he supports starting a testing program as a way to “get tourism moving in the right direction so we can gain some business and get the economic engine started again.”
Gibson said hui members briefed Ige about their progress Wednesday. On Thursday, Ige met with two dozen or so tourism leaders from across the state, including Mufi Hannemann, president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association.
“We had a thoughtful, candid exchange,” Hannemann said. “Our purpose was to let the governor know that we are anxious to reopen. We checked our ego at the door and said, ‘What can we do together to make this happen?’”
Hannemann said testing costs might deter some travelers, “but we’ve always said we want the quality travelers that respect our rules and our culture.”
Gibson said he expects travelers to Hawaii will receive the new requirements like they accept getting shots before visiting Africa or obtaining a visa to travel to China.
Gibson, Hannemann and other visitor industry leaders hope a testing program could launch by mid-July — the time frame many were targeting for reopening prior to Ige’s decision to extend the quarantine.
“Many dates are being discussed, but ultimately it will be the governor’s decision on when he feels he can safely reopen,” Green said. “But it is correct to say that this would make it easier to reopen sooner rather than later.”
It’s unclear how much tourism would return to Hawaii if a pre-arrival COVID-19 testing program were to begin. But it would certainly be more than now.
State Economist Eugene Tian, who spoke at the PATA economic forum, said visitor arrivals are expected to reach only 3.4 million this year, down nearly 68% from 10.4 million in 2019. By the end of next year, Tian expects arrivals to reach only 6.2 million.
While the state hasn’t banned visitors from coming to Hawaii, relatively few law-abiding visitors would want to vacation in Hawaii under such stringent emergency orders. The quarantine for trans-Pacific passengers, which took effect March 26, nearly zeroed out visitor arrivals.
In June 2019 when tourism was robust, the state averaged 35,000 passengers a day, said state Department of Transportation spokesman Tim Sakahara. From June 1-10 there have been 4,901. Only 411 visitors arrived in Hawaii on Wednesday.