This is a juncture Hawaii businesses have been clamoring to reach, and now that we’ve arrived, the view is more than a bit scary.
The state is preparing to welcome back tourists whose arrival can begin to rebuild an economy that, over the past century, has become increasingly dependent on the visitor industry.
Hotels, restaurants, shops, lounges and various tour attractions and activities were told last week that, starting Aug. 1, they can start serving trans-Pacific tourists who can begin booking their in-bound flights to arrive that day and thereafter. Preparations will be monumental, making the environment safe for all concerned. Testing employees returning to their jobs would be a prudent move for many businesses.
The announcement: Those wanting to visit Hawaii without being barred by the existing 14-day quarantine can be tested 72 hours in advance of their Hawaii arrival. If found COVID-19-clear, they can have that quarantine period waived — but, of course, it will remain in place for those who don’t test negative. The wisdom of that policy is made evident by the spiking COVID-19 cases around the country.
Most of Hawaii’s arriving visitors, who in the pre-pandemic period numbered about 30,000 daily, come from the mainland United States. And there the trendlines of the disease suggest that it is uncontrolled in many places across the country, for a variety of reasons.
The nationwide street demonstrations for police reform. The states that opened up economic activity with insufficient safeguards in place. The general boost in activity that comes with the summer months.
Whatever the particular cause, the result is that around 2.5 million Americans have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And because the mortality rate is higher in the U.S. than globally, the CDC has estimated that the actual count of cases could be five to 10 times that high.
These are the populations that are the Hawaii market — a fact that may fill Hawaii residents with trepidation. Those residents need to remember: The state is reopening tourism because its wounded economy needs it to open, not because it’s a particularly benign period to do so.
But the point is, a fairly sturdy foundation has been set for the increased risks to be managed reasonably well. On balance, these are risks worth taking.
Gov. David Ige has taken a bruising from critics who have chafed under the ongoing series of emergency orders he has issued. Progress toward this decision point — the 14-day quarantine went into effect three months ago — has been frustratingly slow for businesses.
While the pace of planning for reopening likely should have picked up early on, it ultimately made sense to learn from what other tourist destinations were doing. In the end, Hawaii has modeled its re-entry strategy on a program piloted by Alaska.
A federal lawsuit filed challenging the constitutionality of Ige’s orders was withdrawn when, on Wednesday, the governor announced that Hawaii would follow Alaska’s lead.
In the meantime, the state has taken the crucial step of ramping up its capacity for testing and, especially important, for contact tracing. The state Health Department and the University of Hawaii have trained a cadre of tracers who can reach out to those at risk of infection.
Lt. Gov. Josh Green, as a practicing physician, has been in the thick of developing health protocols for the tourism reboot. In an interview on the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s COVID-19 Care Conversation on Friday, he acknowledged that the full complement of testing options is not set in stone. The enlistment of the national chain CVS, though, is a promising start.
But what will be the minimum age for a traveler needing a test? When should a local resident returning from a trip of less than six days be tested? These are among the wrinkles to be ironed out.
On Friday, the Legislature announced it had appropriated $90 million for “thermal screening systems, security protocols, web-based verification applications, traveler verification rooms, swab and testing facilities, and a service contract for ramping up testing.” Testing at the airport will be for those who show symptoms upon arrival, an essential element but another one that still needs fleshing out.
With all of that, the most important ingredient for a successful tourism restart lies with kamaaina, most of whom have developed good habits around mask wearing. Many of Hawaii’s tourists have not, and will be in vacation mode, besides.
The right protocols will need to be modeled by residents and encouraged in visitors, on an ongoing basis. And educating prospective visitors entails clear messaging that starts well in advance of arrival.
The key to success is a system requiring only minor course corrections as tourism slowly returns. This is so critical to Hawaii. Let’s prepare carefully, so we can get things right the first time.