The U.S. Department of Justice is the newest powerful interest pressuring Gov. David Ige to reopen Hawaii’s out-of-state tourism.
The DOJ filed a statement of interest Tuesday challenging the constitutionality of Ige’s COVID-19 out-of-state passenger quarantine order, which it says discriminates against out-of-state residents in a manner that harms Hawaii’s economy.
The statement supports residents who have filed a lawsuit challenging Ige’s use of his emergency powers during the outbreak, which includes the implementation of the interisland and out-of-state travel quarantines.
The plaintiffs of the lawsuit include over a dozen Kauai and Big Island residents and an association called For Our Rights. They are being represented by The Attorneys for Freedom Law Firm, which filed the lawsuit against Ige, state Attorney General Clare Connors and the state of Hawaii.
Submitted by Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Civil Rights Division, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Alexander Maugeri and U.S. Attorney Kenji Price of the District of Hawaii, the statement opines that Hawaii could protect public health through less restrictive travel containment policies as Alaska has chosen to do. It also says Hawaii’s trans-Pacific quarantine discriminates against out- of-state travelers and out-of-state residents who own properties in Hawaii.
”The department will continue to be especially vigilant of any infringement on the right to travel that unduly harms the ability of Americans to earn a living and support their families,” Dreiband said.
In response to the lawsuit, the state Department of the Attorney General, on behalf of Connors and Ige, said the emergency proclamations that led to the travel quarantines were lawful.
“The Department of Justice’s statement of interest … is, like the plaintiff’s allegations, without merit. The Governor’s Emergency Proclamation for COVID-19 and the subsequent proclamations were properly and lawfully issued pursuant to the Governor’s statutory authority and his determination that an emergency exists due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the danger and threat it poses to Hawaii,” Krishna Jayaram, special assistant to the attorney general, said Tuesday in a statement.
Ige ordered the 14-day travel quarantine for out-of-state arrivals starting March 26, and interisland travelers were included April 1. Those subject to the quarantines are required to confine themselves in a designated location for two weeks and can face up to one year in jail and a $5,000 fine if they break the quarantine. The interisland quarantine ended June 16.
The DOJ’s criticisms come as Ige gets ready to launch 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 14-day mandatory self-quarantine.
A hui sent a request to Japan on Monday for a travel bubble with Hawaii, which would ease restrictions for incoming visitors who have met certain safety thresholds.
Pulling the trigger on the broad reopening of tourism is complicated, as leaders must balance the urgency of reopening Hawaii’s economy against the risk that more freedom could bring a second wave of COVID-19 cases that ruins Hawaii’s current so-far, so-good record.
The state Department of Health reported Tuesday that there were only three new coronavirus cases. The new cases, which were all on Oahu, brought the statewide total of infections since the start of the outbreak to 819.
As of Tuesday, 129 infections in Hawaii are active cases, with 673 patients now classified by health officials as “released from isolation” since the start of the outbreak in February.
Given these low case counts, the strict travel bans have left some Hawaii residents and businesses puzzled.
Mufi Hannemann, Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association president and CEO, said Hawaii’s visitor industry has put protocols in place to safely reopen and that unless that happens soon some businesses will be at the point of no return.
Fewer than half of the Hawaii hotels that closed in March as COVID-19 fears and tourism lockdowns reduced travel have been able to reopen.
Hannemann said few if any of the 100 or so hotels that are open are even close to the black. Those still shuttered are losing upward of $1 million to $1.5 million per month— that’s a daily loss of $33,000 to $50,000, he said.
“We need to reopen now. The economy is in a crisis now,” Hannemann said.
Eric Takahata, managing director of Hawaii Tourism Japan, said economic losses to Japanese-owned businesses in Hawaii since March are at a collective $200 million a month — that’s roughly $6.6 million a day.
Hawaiian Airlines, the state’s hometown airline, is reporting a cash burn of roughly $3 million a day.
Hawaii tourism has literally been in a free fall since March 26 when Ige implemented a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine for out-of-state passengers, which is currently slated to run through at least July 31.
The state’s lifting of the interisland passenger quarantine has been of only limited benefit to Hawaii’s visitor industry. Some visitor industry members have reported weekend strengthening, but few are seeing weekday benefits. Also, the volume of interisland travel hasn’t been enough to entice the reopening of most of the hotels that closed down after travel demand declined amid COVID-19 fears and government lockdowns.
Normally in June the state gets 35,000 passengers a day, most of them visitors. For all of June 2019, when Hawaii tourism was still in growth mode, visitor arrivals rose about 6% to 951,628, and nonseasonally adjusted spending rose nearly 3% to $1.64 billion compared with a year prior.
The Hawaii Tourism Authority reported Tuesday that 1,655 passengers arrived in Hawaii on Monday, and only 399 were visitors. Some 340 visitors who arrived Monday went to Oahu, while 56 visitors went to Maui and three to Kona.
The Chamber of Commerce Hawaii delivered a petition to Ige on Tuesday with more than 1,000 signatures calling for a definitive plan for restarting trans-Pacific travel and several other measures to help small businesses.
The petition was supported by the Kauai, Maui, Molokai, Kapolei, Kona- Kohala and Hawaii Island Chambers of Commerce; Retail Merchants of Hawaii; Hawaii Food Industry Association; Hawaii Farm Bureau; Hawaii Food Manufacturers Association; and Hawaii Restaurant Association.
“Local businesses are fighting for survival. The overwhelming response to this petition by signers from all walks of life, including those who are currently unemployed, makes it clear that our state needs to do more to provide assistance and clear guidance,” Sherry Menor-McNamara, Chamber of Commerce Hawaii president and CEO, said in a statement.