As Hawaii prepares to reopen tourism, COVID-19 infection rates are soaring in Florida, Texas, Arizona, California and other states where there’s been a cavalier attitude toward social distancing and mask wearing.
These hotspots have had to close bars, restaurants, gyms, movie theaters, water parks and beaches to try to regain control of the pandemic. Mask mandates have also been put in place in some counties.
To make matters worse, several major airlines such American, United and Hawaiian, have quietly abandoned their policy of blocking middle seats and are now filling flights to capacity. But other airlines such as Delta and Southwest are leaving middle seats empty for now. Wearing a mask during the flight also seems to have become optional as airline crews have been instructed not to engage with passengers who refuse to wear a mask.
Throw this in with Hawaii’s plan to reopen tourism with a voluntary PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test prior to boarding, or the option to self-quarantine for 14 days on an honor system, and we have a recipe for a resurgence of the virus in the fall and winter. The preboarding PCR test, the cornerstone of opening tourism safely, is running into obstacles as some people haven’t been able to get tested and others couldn’t get their results in 72 hours.
As we know, the gold standard for containing the virus is maintaining a minimum 6-foot physical distance and wearing a mask in public. Recently though, some local businesses such as restaurants and bars have been pushing back on physical distancing by stating that they cannot turn a profit unless they operate at full capacity. Bars that have been ignoring coronavirus safety regulations have recently been shut down for 24 hours by the city. This is the right approach as no one wants an entire industry shutdown because of a few transgressors. Stringent pandemic safety regulations are critical in high-risk areas such as bars, gyms and schools.
Since our economy is in shambles, Hawaii has little choice but to reopen tourism in a few weeks. Obviously, tourism will be slow until there is a vaccine, but those who have been busting a gut to come to Hawaii will hop on a plane and sit for five-plus hours in a packed cabin with passengers who might be infected.
How can Hawaii keep infection rates manageable so it doesn’t overwhelm our hospitals? We can follow the lead of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut that have a mandatory 14-day quarantine for visitors from hotspot states. It’s a fluid situation and consequently our trans-Pacific quarantine and screening plan should be flexible, too.
We have to find ways to enforce the quarantine for those who refuse to test prior to boarding. We also need to be very careful giving blanket exemptions for quarantine. Until we have adequate tests to conduct widespread testing, we cannot become complacent.
How can ordinary people like you and me keep ourselves safe? Other than social distancing, wearing a mask in public and handwashing, we can hold businesses and schools accountable for abiding by the 6-foot physical distancing standard. Support businesses that are following CDC guidelines. These businesses care about the health and safety of their customers, employees and their community. Although many small businesses and restaurants are struggling, I hope they all understand the consequences of not following pandemic safety measures.
If we are not careful, our contact tracers might be very busy come fall and our hospitals, particularly on neighbor islands, could easily become overwhelmed. Don’t let down your guard, Hawaii.