Gov. David Ige is expected to announce the state’s adoption of a COVID-19 testing protocol that would allow some travelers to bypass the mandatory 14-day quarantine soon.
“We are definitely getting very close in the next day or so to really announcing what the plans would be for going forward,” said Ige during Monday’s COVID-19 Care Conversation presented by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “What we’re talking about is, in a phased and safe way, beginning to bring trans-Pacific travelers here.”
Much of the state has been allowed to reopen, including, most recently, fitness centers, bars, museums and movie theaters on Oahu, the most populated isle, with the highest number of COVID-19 cases. On June 16, interisland travelers were able to visit neighbor islands without a quarantine.
Ige said his administration was “working through the details and making sure we have a system we feel confident will work and continue to keep our community safe and healthy.”
The Ige administration has been looking at a testing protocol similar to one being used in Alaska, which allows travelers who can show proof of a negative COVID-19 test 72 hours prior to arriving in the state to bypass the quarantine requirement.
The two-week quarantine, which Ige implemented March 26 to help stop the spread of the new coronavirus, has appeared to help Hawaii achieve the lowest infection rate of any state in the nation.
At the same time, the quarantine has crippled the state’s economy, which is heavily reliant on tourism, resulting in the closures of hotels and businesses tied to the visitor market. Some economists have warned of the dire consequences of an extended closure.
The Chamber of Commerce Hawaii, with some 2,000 members representing more than 200,000 employees, launched a petition earlier this month urging Ige to open trans-Pacific travel before July 31 because many local businesses would not otherwise make it.
“Every day we inch closer to an economic cliff that will close businesses permanently and destroy our local business community beyond repair if tourism does not reopen,” President and CEO Sherry Menor-McNamara said in a news release. “It is incumbent that the administration implement a plan to accelerate the opening of the trans-Pacific visitor economy ahead of July 31. Local businesses and workers will pay the price if safe, decisive and swift action isn’t taken.”
Concerned residents, on the other hand, are anxious that opening the state to trans-Pacific travel rashly will bring additional spikes that put locals, particularly kupuna, at risk and more permanently cripple the economy in the long run.
Ige on Monday reaffirmed his plans to keep the quarantine in place through July 31.
On Monday the state Health Department recorded four new coronavirus cases on Oahu, bringing the statewide total since the start of the outbreak to 816.
It was a slight relief from a streak of double-digit numbers over the weekend — 27 on Friday, 14 on Saturday and 11 on Sunday. The spike to 27 new cases on Friday was the highest daily increase since early April, although health officials said it was not unexpected.
“We are confident in our ability to handle the numbers,” said Ige of the double-digit increases, adding that contact tracing was conducted immediately.
The challenge, he said, is that individuals can carry the virus but still be asymptomatic. He also noted the number of cases is surging in U.S. West travel markets, including California, Oregon and Washington, which would put Hawaii at risk.
There are lessons to be learned from Alaska, he said. Alaska gave travelers the option of testing prior to arrival in the state or getting a test after arrival and waiting in quarantine for the results. The option of testing after arrival was popular and stretched Alaska’s testing capacity. Ige said he does not want that to happen in Hawaii.
Alaska’s visitors are also limited to summer months rather than year-round, he noted, and the 49th state gets only about one-tenth of the volume of visitors that the Aloha State gets.
“We definitely will benefit from the lessons learned from Alaska, and will be incorporating the parts we think will work here in Hawaii,” said Ige.
Even with Hawaii’s mandatory quarantine in place, hundreds of visitors have been flying into the state. On Sunday, 1,497 people flew to Hawaii, including 361 visitors, after having averaged 500 in the past week, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
Still, those numbers are nowhere close to the approximately 35,000 a day, including both residents and visitors, that arrived by air daily in Hawaii at the same time last year, according to HTA.
Ige said that additionally, he would seek legislation that would use state transient accommodations tax money to help fund the screening and contact tracing of travelers.
He reminded everyone that the battle against COVID-19 is a marathon and that everyone should remain cautious.
“As we restart our economy, which is so necessary,” said Ige, “everyone needs to be mindful and take personal responsibility for maintaining physical distancing, wear their masks, stay home when they’re sick, do the things that help our community.”