It’s time to strap on the climbing ropes.
Gov. David Ige green-lighted a COVID-19 passenger testing program that will allow Hawaii’s tourism industry to start heading back up the cliff it fell off at the end of March.
Starting Aug. 1, passengers with approved negative COVID-19 tests taken within 72 hours of their trip to Hawaii may bypass the state’s mandatory 14-day self-quarantine for out-of state passengers. The out-of-state quarantine runs through July 31 and is expected to be extended.
Ige made the announcement Wednesday at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport, where he was flanked by Lt. Gov. Josh Green, Senate President Ronald Kouchi, Speaker of the House Scott Saiki, Maui County Mayor Mike Victorino, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and Dr. Bruce Anderson, state Department of Health director.
“We’ve all sacrificed in our community, all taken personal responsibility in this fight against COVID-19 and are now ready to begin the process of returning our economy in a safe and healthy way,” Ige said.
Details about the new testing program are still pending. However, Green said the state is in active discussions with CVS Pharmacy, which has 1,400 outlets across the nation, to launch a testing protocol. The protocol will be similar to one being used in Alaska — except unlike Alaska, Hawaii won’t require a second test, Green said.
Green added that Hawaii also is willing to work with partners and would accept passenger tests from any Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) certified lab. While there was talk earlier of allowing passengers to also get tested once they came to Hawaii, Green said currently the state is only supporting a pre-arrival testing program.
“Our messaging is simple and direct: Please get tested before you come to Hawaii,” Green said. “Our absolute focus is to minimize the introduction of COVID into Hawaii, while healing our economy.”
Road to recovery
The changes are expected to roll back some of the economic damage to Hawaii caused by the collapse of tourism, which began free-falling after Ige ordered a 14-day travel quarantine for out-of-state arrivals starting March 26, and expanded it to interisland travelers April 1.
The quarantines weren’t very appealing to travelers, who were required to confine themselves in a designated location for two weeks after arriving in Hawaii or face up to one year in jail and a $5,000 fine.
The reopening of out-of-state tourism to Hawaii can’t come soon enough for most members of the state’s visitor industry or for lockdown critics, including the U.S. Department of Justice, that has stated the out-of-state quarantine violates the U.S. Constitution because it discriminates against out-of-state residents in a manner that harms Hawaii’s economy.
Ige lifted the interisland passenger quarantine June 16. However, his administration struggled to more broadly reopen tourism because of the intricacies of balancing Hawaii’s economic needs against the risk that more freedom could bring a second wave of COVID-19 cases.
Jonathan Dworkin, infectious diseases doctor at The Queen’s Medical Center Punchbowl, said “If you open up without test-based screening, you can expect hundreds of extra infections per month, and that’s assuming only a partial return to pre-pandemic tourism levels. So getting this done intelligently is probably the most important factor in determining whether the state succeeds in keeping disease under control.”
A report from the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization entitled “Prevention of Travel-related Reintroduction of COVID-19 Infection in the State of Hawaii,” also urged incorporating testing along with thermal screening to keep Hawaii’s COVID-19 infections under control.
“If tourism resumes with 6,000 visitors arriving daily who are only screened for temperature and symptoms, we estimate this will lead to 750 additional active infections present in our community each month among visitors and residents,” the UHERO report said. “Adding the second RT-PCR screen reduces additional active infections each month to roughly 150 people.”
Watchful eye on cases
Ige said some new COVID-19 cases will slip into Hawaii with the reopening of tourism; however, he emphasized that the state has stepped up screening and contact tracing and is prepared to handle the increase.
Ige said the trigger to halt the testing program or implement other restrictions would be “a doubling in the the number of new cases each week for two consecutive incubation periods— so essentially it would end up having to be a doubling and doubling and doubling and doubling over a four-week period.”
Additionally, Ige added that the state has contacted health care facilities throughout the islands and has “asked them to raise their hands when they see signs of caution” and when they see signs “where we should stop or take a step back.”
Even so, some Hawaii residents remain unconvinced that a pre-test plan will provide enough protection to justify lifting the quarantine for some.
Airport travelers Scott Pinter and Sararose Holding of Kihei said Wednesday that it seemed risky. They said such tests are unreliable, and it seemed like there’s enough wiggle room in the timing of the testing process to allow in unwanted COVID-19 cases.
“It’s nice for the travelers, but it could be a little dangerous for the people living here,” Pinter said.
“There’s way too many active cases on the continent for them to be coming here. It risks everything the islands have,” Holding said.
Still, Hawaii’s tourism-related businesses and those that depend on them see testing as an opportunity for the state to finally begin the long road to recovering tourism.
The lifting of the interisland quarantine has bolstered Hawaii tourism slightly, but not much. Only 409 visitors were among the 1,512 passengers that flew into Hawaii Wednesday.
Normally in June, the state gets 35,000 passengers a day, most of them visitors. In June 2019, 951,628 visitors came to Hawaii and spent more than $1.6 billion.
Pre-pandemic, Hawaii tourism supplied 17% of the state’s GDP and supported more than 216,000 jobs. In 2019, 10.4 million visitor arrivals brought nearly $18 billion in visitor spending and $2 billion in taxes to Hawaii.
Mufi Hannemann, president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association, said Ige’s announcement is welcome, but won’t bring an overnight return to 2019’s record tourism levels.
“The road to recovery will be much more daunting and challenging than flattening the curve,” Hannemann said. “I am proud to say that our local tourism stakeholders are committed to this recovery process and will continue their efforts to ensure the safety not only of visitors, but also the thousands of men and women who comprise our industry’s workforce.”
Star-Advertiser reporter Tim Hurley contributed to this report.