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Hawaii Gov. David Ige, mayors proceed with caution on reopening tourism

Hawaii’s battered tourism industry and myriad other businesses and workers who rely on it received little clarity Friday on whether the state’s pre-travel COVID-19 testing program that would allow arriving passengers to bypass the mandatory 14-day self-quarantine will launch Aug. 1 as planned.

Enough issues have been raised about the plan by county mayors and other leaders to throw a sooner-rather-than-later revival of Hawaii’s economy into serious doubt. The concerns include lack of details on such critical points as where travelers will be able to obtain pre-departure testing and whether children are subject to the rules, but more worrisome to officials are the alarming surges in COVID-19 cases in Hawaii and on the mainland, where nearly 60,000 new cases and 799 deaths were reported Friday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hawaii health officials Friday reported 28 new confirmed coronavirus cases, bringing the statewide number of infections since the start of the outbreak to 1,158. The new cases include 25 on Oahu, one each on Maui and Hawaii island, and one Hawaii resident who was diagnosed while out of state.

The state Department of Health also announced that contact tracing uncovered 17 coronavirus cases so far involving two unnamed Oahu commercial gym facilities. The infections were linked to one person who participated in exercise classes at both locations.

Ige released a brief statement Friday saying he engaged in “productive meetings” this week with county mayors about the testing program. “We are assessing the current situation in Hawaii and on the mainland, and we’ll make an announcement when we are satisfied that the plans will protect the health and safety of our residents and guests,” the statement said.

Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim said he felt “a big sense of relief” upon reading Ige’s statement indicating the governor was weighing concerns about whether the state will be ready to accept a larger influx of visitors in a mere three weeks and under what rules.

Kim said reopening tourism would be premature without a better system of providing real-time monitoring of arrivals and where visitors are staying and their movements. Ensuring the state and counties have adequate COVID-19 testing capacity is another of Kim’s prerequisites before easing travel restrictions, one shared by his counterparts.

“All I’m saying is let’s pause and take a look at the best information we have and talk about it without the pressure of a time frame,” he said. “We all understand how extremely critical it is to businesses, and we know that they are hurting, but we have to put precedence on what is an acceptable risk for the safety of our people.”

Kim said the mayors don’t necessarily oppose Ige’s program, but need more details to be able to put an effective policy into action and ensure the safety of residents and visitors. “Bad timing” also warrants a delay in plans, he said.

“Things are so fluid and almost explosive on the mainland this past week with a record number of cases, especially in California, Texas and Arizona — our neighboring states that account for a good percentage of the people who are coming to Hawaii. … We have to pause so we can evaluate the whole situation.”

Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino expressed similar concerns during his daily briefing Friday but seemed more definitive on the question of whether a decision had been made on state’s pre-travel testing program, saying “we are going to be holding off” on the Aug. 1 start.

“When we set that date a few weeks back, things were really moving quite quietly, and we were in good shape. But things do change and they have changed,” Victorino said. “So we’re afraid to just say we’re just going to reopen without many more considerations, and the testing and other monitoring programs have to be in place to protect your well-being, your health.”

Honolulu officials also have been wary of Ige’s schedule to ramp up tourism. The City Council on Wednesday unanimously approved a resolution urging the state to strengthen its pre-travel testing protocol and to pause plans due to the troubling number of COVID-19 cases here and in other states.

At a media event Thursday, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell revealed some of the options that were discussed during this week’s meetings between the mayors and Ige administration officials. These included extending the pre-travel testing period to five days from 72 hours, exempting all children from testing and requiring travelers to remain in “lockdown” until their tests results are known.

“The governor is holding firm on everyone being tested no matter what your age, and I would say the mayors support the governor on that position — a hard line on that requirement,” Caldwell said. “What still is in the open, though, is do we open up even to those who come in with a negative test” while COVID-19 rages across much of the nation.

“Maybe Aug. 1 everyone who has a negative test is allowed in, and no one else is allowed in. That would be something I’d be willing to look at,” he said. “But with the conditions that are now in place, I don’t think it’s safe enough for everyone.”

A spokeswoman for Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami said he was awaiting an update from the governor before commenting. Kawakami received plaudits for moving swiftly in the early days of the outbreak to implement restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the new coronavirus on his island.

Meanwhile, the number of visitors who flew to the islands Thursday — all subject to the 14-day quarantine that went into effect after March 26 — once again surpassed the 700 mark.

Of the 2,668 passengers who arrived on 27 flights, 732 were visitors, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority. The total included 858 returning residents and 195 people who indicated they planned to relocate to Hawaii. The majority of the visitors, 587, landed on Oahu, while 65 went to Maui, 60 to Kona and 20 to Lihue.

HTA has said that during this same time last year, about 35,000 passengers were arriving in Hawaii daily.

In its daily tally the Department of Health reported that of the 1,158 cases of COVID-19 identified in Hawaii, 125 patients, or 11%, have required hospitalization, and 1,058 or 91% were residents. The total breaks down to 867 on Oahu, 131 in Maui County, 98 on Hawaii island, 43 in Kauai County and 19 Hawaii residents diagnosed while out of state, according to health officials.

The state’s coronavirus death toll remained at 19.

Of all the confirmed Hawaii cases since the start of the outbreak, 125 have required hospitalization, with two new hospitalizations on Oahu reported Friday, DOH said. There were 292 active COVID-19 cases in the state.

Addressing the fitness club clusters, health officials said regular physical exercise is generally a good thing, but by their nature, gyms operate in closed spaces with poor ventilation where physical distancing may be difficult to maintain. This can create “breeding grounds for all kinds of infections, including coronavirus,” said state Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park in a news release.

Safe practices required by state and county authorities include proper physical distancing in workout areas and in group classes, wearing of masks at all times and consistent and thorough disinfection of equipment and all surfaces.

Furthermore, Park said, “It’s important for everyone to stay home if they are ill and not go to work or public areas.”

State Health Director Bruce Anderson noted that individuals at gyms are often breathing hard while exercising, putting themselves and those around them at increased risk since the coronavirus is transmitted through aerosols and droplets associated with breathing, coughing and sneezing.

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