Gov. David Ige’s decision to delay Hawaii’s tourism reopening by a month until Sept. 1 was a blow to the visitor industry, but a relief in the broader community still uneasy about coronavirus spread.
We weren’t ready either psychologically or in terms of the practical precautions necessary to reopen our state safely.
Because other states rushed to reopen prematurely, COVID-19 is raging out of control in many of the places our tourists come from, with record numbers of U.S. cases daily and more than 137,000 deaths since March.
The growing pandemic has thrown into doubt the availability of COVID tests needed to prescreen visitors and returning residents who wish to avoid Hawaii’s 14-day quarantine, as well as the ability to get test results within a 72-hour window.
Enforcing the 14-day quarantine for visitors who skip the pretesting is “challenging,” according to the state.
Hawaii’s COVID count is already rising with the reopening of the local economy, and welcoming visitors back under these circumstances could invite a nightmare scenario of too few tourists to rekindle the economy, but plenty enough to spread more coronavirus infections than our medical system can handle.
The visitor industry says the reopening can’t be further postponed without risking our most important economic engine. This may be necessary, however, if we fail to resolve the safety concerns that stopped the Aug. 1 opening.
Interestingly, the pressure to reopen has come mainly from hotel owners, while employees have worried about their safety and the concern that hotels will use the pandemic as an excuse to permanently reduce their workforce.
Ige has been vague on the specific criteria that will determine whether we reopen, but these seem critical:
>> We must have reliable partners who can test visitors within 72 hours of departure and provide timely results. This is not yet in place.
>> Our 14-day quarantine leaks even with the few hundred visitors we now get each day. We need to tighten this up greatly before we potentially face more who skip the pretest.
>> There’s a running dispute among the Health Department, Lt. Gov. Josh Green and the Legislature on whether the state has ample COVID-19 testing and contact-tracing capacity to handle an influx of tourists, and Ige must assure unquestionably that we do.
>> We need assurances from the hotels and others in the visitor industry that a return of tourism will bring a commensurate return of jobs. Otherwise, what’s the point?
A healthy economy and the public health go hand in hand. If COVID-19 is out of control and the health system overwhelmed, visitors won’t come and locals won’t spend on shopping, dining and entertainment.
Rushing to reopen before it’s safe only wastes the enormous sacrifices we’ve made in the past four months.
Reach David Shapiro at email@example.com.