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Lost faith in Hawaii’s October tourism reopening triggers mass layoffs, traveler cancellations

The state posted 25 mass layoff and furlough notices from hospitality companies on Thursday — a signal that Hawaii’s visitor industry doubts that the state will begin a pre-arrivals testing program on Oct. 1 to kick-start Hawaii’s tourism recovery.

Thursday was a one-day pandemic record for Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act notices. Altogether, 26 hospitality companies have filed WARN letters since the start of September notifying the state of more than 2,500 impending layoffs or extended furloughs. That’s on top of the 23 WARN letter notices that visitor industry businesses issued in August, as well as the 18 in July, 30 in June, nine in May, 10 in April and 22 in March.

“The WARN notices today were depressing. Pages and pages,” said Ben Rafter, CEO of OLS Hotels and Resorts.” We’ve seen so many of these notices, but we can’t start becoming numb to them. In addition to the hundreds of millions that have been lost in the tourism industry, these are thousands of people’s lives. We need to keep pushing forward with reopening plans.”

Gov. David Ige has twice pushed a pre-arrivals reopening plan. The plan, which was first announced in June, was originally going to launch Aug. 1, then Sept. 1, and now Oct. 1 at the earliest. Yet all these months later, there’s still not a playbook in sight, and what little guidelines Hawaii has haven’t been updated.

Despite a heap of new restrictions, the Economic & Community Recovery Navigator site for Hawaii still suggests that the state’s reopening status is in the yellow “Act with Care” phase, which comes with minor disruptions.

The top of GoHawaii.com, the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s official website for visitors, is still dominated with content about restrictions and rules. Guidelines for a tentative Oct. 1 launch of a pre-travel testing program don’t even materialize until about two-thirds down the Special Alerts and Notices for the Hawaiian Islands page.

The entry tells travelers that those who take a Nucleic Acid Amplification Test, a COVID-19 test from a Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendment- 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 also says travelers of all ages must take the test and must pay for the test themselves.

It says travelers who take the test and don’t have the results back in time may quarantine until a negative test is received. It says no commercial testing will be available at Hawaii airports. The site goes on to say that pre-travel testing protocols will be announced prior to the reopen date.

Lots of travelers already have complained that they don’t know where to get the test, and even if they found one, they worry that they could get it back within the 72-hour window. Given the cost and distance involved in a Hawaii vacation, they don’t want to risk making plans and having to cancel them. If their test doesn’t come back before travel to Hawaii, they fear what would happen if they found out that they were COVID positive after arrival.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green said the pre-arrivals testing plan is ready to go once Ige approves it.

“We have an agreement with CVS and Kaiser,” Green said. “People also can go to a private doctor, and if it’s an approved test, we’ll accept it. As we approach the date, the state Department of Health will consider additional tests that might be easier and cheaper. We’ll have a whole list available.”

Green said the state also is seeking a partner that can run up to 10,000 tests a day, possibly including rapid tests, at locations that preferably would be near state airports.

More than a dozen prominent members of Hawaii’s visitor industry said they were unaware of this plan Friday, although many said if rapid tests were made available, it could be a game changer for Hawaii tourism.

Still, judging by the cancellations hitting the visitor industry, travelers have lost faith in Oct. 1 as a start date. CBS News Travel Editor Peter Greenberg said during a Facebook Live forum Thursday that he’s not expecting the islands to open up until January.

Jack Richards, CEO and president of Pleasant Holidays, a large Hawaii wholesale travel seller, said “We’re still in the process of canceling reservations to Hawaii for September and October and we’re even starting to get into November reservations.”

“The cancellations will keep coming until Hawaii gets a definite tourism reopening date,” Richards said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that if the governor says Oct.1 is a go that we’ll see demand coming back to Hawaii. There’s still time to save the festive holiday travel season, but we’ve got to act now.”

Even if the pretest was active, not that many visitors would be likely to come to Hawaii now given the COVID-19 case levels in the state and the fear of plane travel.

Green has said he thinks Hawaii could get between 6,000 and 8,000 visitors a day upon reopening.

However, Mufi Hannemann, president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, has said that count is probably optimistic.

“I’d be happy if we even hit 5,000 a day at the start,” Hannemann said.

In 2019, the average daily census of visitors in Hawaii was 245,733. And, on any given day, more than 30,000 passengers, most of them visitors, flew into Hawaii.

The state Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism recently reported that only 30,748 visitors arrived in Hawaii during the second quarter.

Omnitrak President Chris Kam said irrespective of whether Hawaii gets its pre-arrivals test program running there are signs nationwide and in Hawaii that leisure travel demand is slowly ebbing.

Kam said in August 63% of travelers surveyed in Omnitrak’s Traveltrakamerica survey said they had canceled trips, compared to 60% in March. He said about 40% of travelers surveyed in March said they planned to travel, but in August only 37% planned to travel.

He said 28% of travelers surveyed in the first quarter of this year thought travel was less safe than the same time a year ago. However, Kam said that number had grown to 47% in the second quarter.

“People are seeing travel as less safe. Until that gets addressed, it will depress a lot of travel demand,” Kam said. “I’ve heard hotel demand in Hawaii is soft all the way until the very end of the first quarter and it will most likely be the second quarter before we see any kind of return to demand.”

Rafter, who also sits on the Hawaii Tourism Authority board, said reopening tourism safely is possible. But first, leaders must reach consensus on the rules and announce a credible reopening date.

“There are places all over that are gradually building momentum and achieving success,” Rafter said. “I still think everyone would be ecstatic if Oct. 1 happened, but the broader signal is that as an industry we just can’t continue with the status quo.”

Jerry Gibson, Turtle Bay Resort vice president, said in a WARN notice that the resort began furloughing employees on March 27 due to the pandemic and state and local government orders. Gibson said 606 out of 653 employees were furloughed and are now expected to remain furloughed for more months.

“Governor Ige issued restrictive orders beginning in March 2020 and has subsequently issued 12 restrictive proclamations, which include stay at home orders, 14-day quarantine periods for all visitors, limitations on travel between islands, health screenings and beach closures,” Gibson said.

Gibson said further downward pressure on the resort’s business is expected from the recent spike of the virus around the state and the orders prohibiting social gatherings and requiring everyone but essential workers to stay home, among other restrictions.

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