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Lack of clear vision for pre-arrival testing program is hindering Hawaii’s tourism reopening

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM 
                                Beach activity was light in Waikiki on Wednesday. Beginning Aug. 1, the state will allow out-of-state travelers to bypass the mandatory 14-day quarantine with a qualifying negative COVID-19 test result prior to arrival.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Beach activity was light in Waikiki on Wednesday. Beginning Aug. 1, the state will allow out-of-state travelers to bypass the mandatory 14-day quarantine with a qualifying negative COVID-19 test result prior to arrival.

The clock is already ticking on the 30-day countdown to reopen Hawaii to visitors, but so far there’s not a playbook in sight.

GoHawaii.com, the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s official website for visitors, tells travelers that those who take a COVID-19 polymerise chain reaction test from a Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments-certified laboratory 72 hours prior to boarding their flight to Hawaii and get it confirmed prior to arriving will not be subject to the state’s mandatory 14-day self-quarantine.

It says travelers must pay for the test themselves.

>> PHOTOS: Beach activity remains light during the weekday in Waikiki

Other details are lacking, with the website promising information at a later date on the age cutoff for children to be tested, how long the pre-arrival testing requirement and quarantine process will be in effect, and whether the program covers travel just from the U.S. mainland or also includes travel from other countries. And it doesn’t explain if returning residents will fall under the same stipulations.

The absence of critical details so late in the game has left some Hawaii residents crying foul regardless of whether they want Hawaii tourism to run onto the field or remain sidelined. It’s also confusing for would-be travelers to Hawaii who can’t decide if the entry gates are really open.

The Aug. 1 pre-arrival testing program created an opportunity for Ron Seidel of Stevenson Ranch, Calif., and his wife to visit Maui this summer as they have for the past 26 years. But given the uncertain requirements and tight testing window, the Seidels decided it was impractical to bring their daughter and her five children on the Aug. 1-18 trip.

“Everyone is disappointed now. This was supposed to be an opportunity for my daughter to relax and the grandchildren to spend time with their grandparents,” Seidel said. “I’m willing to take the financial risk for the two of us, but it’s too big of a financial pill to swallow for everyone. We’ve got $7,000 in the accommodations and I don’t know what would happen with the airfare.”

Seidel said he’s called and written Hawaii decision-makers for clarity but they’ve come up short. He said his health provider, Kaiser Permanente, won’t allow him to take the test unless he’s got symptoms. Most other sources for testing charge roughly $150 and say results could take up to five days, Seidel said. He found one company that will do a 48-hour rush job, but the price is about $300 per person — or a total of $2,4oo to bring all eight family members to Hawaii.

“I don’t know why Hawaii can’t just make a decision. This is all too wishy-washy and the requirements seem to change from month to month,” Seidel said.

Months after the state revealed its color-coded plan to use public health measures to control the reopening of Hawaii’s local economy, it remains unclear which agency, if any, is creating a similar plan for tourism. Internal debate among decision makers also could jeopardize the state’s pre-arrival testing program from moving forward at the eleventh hour.

Even if the pre-arrival plan does advance, there’s doubt whether it will work in the absence of major tweaks. Other destinations such as St. Lucia in the Caribbean that beat Hawaii to the testing punch already are lengthening testing windows.

Effective July 9, St. Lucia has expanded its testing window from 48 hours to seven days.

“I share their concerns,” Lt. Gov. Josh Green said Friday. “I’m fighting for a workable program that will keep us safe and actually be implementable. COVID will be stopped by masks, social distancing, contact tracing and a pre-test for anyone coming into Hawaii.”

Green said he’s worried about what will happen to people “if we can’t afford food or health care or our children’s education costs. All of that would have terrible health consequences too.”

Green said he’s presented several pre-arrival testing options to Gov. David Ige and his team, who ultimately will decide on the best course to reopen Hawaii tourism.

Growing frustration

State Reps. Bob McDermott (R, Ewa-Iroquois Point) and Gene Ward (R, Hawaii Kai-Kalama Valley) say they are growing more frustrated each day. About six weeks ago, the two came out with a 23-page plan called “Making Hawaii Safe for Travel,” which also relied on pre-arrival COVID-19 testing but offered a beefed-up quarantine plan to restart Hawaii’s visitor industry without creating a second wave of infection.

“I don’t know that there’s a single state plan yet,” McDermott said. “We’re going to open in about 30 days and at Monday’s House COVID Committee hearing I could tell by listening to them that they haven’t thought it through.”

Ward said the pair also are concerned that they don’t see “a singular point of focus, the go-to person for tourism” emerging. In fact, the two lawmakers said that as far as they can tell, the only county in the state with a plan to restart tourism seems to be Kauai, where a hui made up of physicians and other experts has created an alternate plan.

The Kauai COVID Group doesn’t represent the county government, but grassroots efforts on the island have a history of influencing outcomes.

Last year, Kauai protesters blocked tourists from re-entering the North Shore after they said the state had flubbed the reopening of Kuhio Highway, which had been closed to outside traffic for more than a year following a massive flood. In 2007, Kauai protesters also temporarily blocked the now-defunct Hawaii Superferry from docking.

Former Kauai County Councilman Mel Rapozo said he supports the Kauai COVID Group recommendations that require visitors to take a pre-arrival test and another test six-days apart before being allowed out of a shorter quarantine.

“The priority should be on the health and safety of residents rather than the convenience of tourists, especially when the country is blowing up with cases right now,” Rapozo said.

Agreeing on details surrounding the reopening of Hawaii tourism is not an easy job when a resurgence of COVID-19 cases is spreading across the United States. On Saturday, Florida state health officials reported 11,445 new cases, a single-day record.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom also ordered a recent halt to indoor dining, bars and movie theaters, and some beaches were closed as the state headed into the Fourth of July weekend.

Nearly 45% of Hawaii’s arrivals by air in 2019 came from the U.S. West Coast.

Visitor demand

Jack Richards, president and CEO of Pleasant Holidays, and other Hawaii travel sellers say there’s pent-up visitor demand for Hawaii, but actual bookings aren’t solidifying.

“There isn’t a clear set of rules governing the pre-arrival testing process, tests are expensive, and the tight 72-hour testing window creates uncertainty,” said Richards, who has asked the state to consider revising its testing window to four days, although seven would be even better.

Richards said he’s also struggling to get firm reopening commitments from Hawaii’s major hotel chains.

Keith Vieira, principal of KV & Associates, Hospitality Consulting, said only about 100 out of 230 or so Hawaii hotels have had enough demand to justify reopening.

“Every hotel that I’ve talked to over the last three days has said they are actually seeing cancellations outpace bookings for August and September,” Vieira said.

Even with the influx of visitors over the Fourth of July holiday weekend, Hawaii tourism has taken significant hits from COVID-19 fears and government lockdowns, especially the out-of-state passenger quarantine.

HTA reported Monday that visitor arrivals by air in May fell 99% to 9,116 visitors, as compared with May 2019, when 841,376 arrivals came to Hawaii by air and cruise ship. Cruise ships haven’t returned to Hawaii since stopping service in the pandemic’s early days.

Christina Ball, a Kailua resident, and her friend Stephanie Whaley said they enjoyed the absence of visitors on Waikiki Beach during a Wednesday play date with their children but longed for the state to return to normal.

“I don’t believe in the quarantine or wearing masks. I want to see Hawaii reopen now,” Ball said.

On the flip side, some Hawaii residents fear a tourism restart would roll back public health gains. Others support a pre-arrival testing plan but want it beefed up for prime time.

Kailua-based golf pro Robert Respicio is among those who want tourism to reopen, but only if the state holds its ground on pre-arrival testing. Respicio said he doesn’t favor letting visitors wait to get tested until after they arrive.

“If they get tested before they come, we don’t have to worry. What do we do if someone gets on the plane positive and we find out that they are sick once they get here?” Respicio said Wednesday. “If visitors can’t make the testing window, they shouldn’t come.

“It’s a privilege to come to Hawaii. “

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