Recent COVID-19 reports may have jolted Hawaii out of a false sense of security. It may be an even bigger challenge to bring back trans-Pacific travelers after Aug. 1 than anyone thought. But setting that aside, Hawaii residents clearly have relaxed their precautions too much for their own protection, even now.
Too many people are treating the “new normal” as identical to the old one they left behind. Before the coronavirus pandemic, casual, expansive gatherings were part of island culture.
It is not time to return to that behavior. Kamaaina ought to be scared straight by recent developments — although top state officials are signaling caution, but not yet panic.
On Tuesday, alarm bells did go off, triggered by the news of 41 new COVID-19 cases: 38 on Oahu, two on Kauai, one on Hawaii island. That pales in comparison to tallies in mainland hotspots, but it is Hawaii’s biggest one-day total since the pandemic began in March.
More to the point: Although there have been clusters of infections arrayed around family gatherings or business meetings, most of Oahu’s newest cases are scattered around the island. Simply put, there is enough of the virus in the environment to infect people in a variety of settings.
And these aren’t even the infections that officials are anticipating from Fourth of July activities. Officials recoiling at the bad news throughout Tuesday referenced the possibility of pulling back from the larger gatherings that have been authorized.
Mayor Kirk Caldwell said he and the other mayors would meet with Gov. David Ige today to discuss whether and how to move forward with reopening Hawaii to trans-Pacific passengers. Plans call for waiving the required 14-day quarantine if they get a negative COVID-19 test result before boarding the plane.
The reason is clear: The 41 count sounds small, but such numbers can rocket up exponentially. And this is only the increase produced by Hawaii people socializing, unmasked, in what many had assumed was a low-risk environment.
They assumed wrong.
The mayor, as well as Lt. Gov. Josh Green, both indicated that a delay in the Aug. 1 relaunch is an option, and that officials are rethinking events such as this weekend’s “open street” gatherings in Chinatown and Waikiki.
However, the governor, joined by state health officials, clearly was trying to reassert a sense of confidence and calm Tuesday afternoon. He maintained that work is proceeding toward setting up systems for testing travelers at the point of departure and for managing the detection of infections.
The uptick in infections is to be expected, Ige said, but lax public habits simply have to change. Without responsible adaptations to life in a COVID world, the case numbers could increase steadily, which would mean the infections have moved beyond Hawaii’s ability to trace and manage them, said state Health Director Bruce Anderson.
Everyone ought to hope that the state can meet its public commitment to begin a revival of the tourism sector on which so much of the economy depends. Green said earlier Tuesday that a deal is in place for CVS to be a major provider of tests but that talks continue with Walgreens and others.
It’s fair to acknowledge the complex and difficult logistics of the trans-Pacific project, but travelers still have questions that need to be answered, and soon. Will returning Hawaii residents have the same access to testing? Would health insurance cover it?
Hawaii needs to develop clear protocols for travel and convey the importance of social distancing and mask-wearing rules to all visitors.
It now appears that local residents need to hear that message reinforced, as well.