Gov. David Ige said Monday that he’s likely to delay for the third time the start of a pre-arrivals testing program to reopen tourism in Hawaii.
The testing program would allow travelers who have taken an approved COVID- 19 test within 72 hours of traveling to Hawaii to bypass a mandatory 14-day self- quarantine for out-of state passengers that’s been in place since March 26.
The plan, which was first announced in June, was originally going to launch Aug. 1, before Ige pushed it back to Sept. 1 and then Oct. 1 at the earliest.
“Just talking with many in the industry, it will probably not be Oct. 1,” Ige said Monday during an interview with “Spotlight Hawaii,” the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Facebook Live show. “But in the next few days we’ll be providing a better plan for the scheduling of what those dates would look like.”
When Ige delayed the August start of the pre-arrivals testing program, it was because coronavirus cases had surged on the mainland, especially in Hawaii’s primary visitor source markets. Ige’s decision to postpone the September start came as a local surge in COVID-19 cases, mainly on Oahu, had threatened to overwhelm Hawaii’s health care system.
While Hawaii still is seeing a triple-digit rise in coronavirus cases on most days, numbers have dropped.
Hawaii’s effective COVID-19 virus reproduction rate Monday was the best in the nation, outside of Nevada. In early August, Hawaii’s effective reproduction rate was the nation’s worst.
On Monday, Ige did not provide a health justification for a further delay of the pre-travel testing program.
That’s frustrating to some Hawaii residents who have noted that the worst news on covidpau.org is the University of Hawaii’s Economic Research Organization’s economic pulse index, which has been dropping since late June.
A group of local businesses and nonprofit organizations launched the COVID Pau website last week to provide Hawaii residents with real- time data to stop the spread of COVID-19 so that the economy reopens sooner, and if it must close, that only parts of it must shut down.
However, Melvin Sakurai, a management consultant with Research Information Services, on Monday was among the Hawaii residents who supported Ige’s decision to pause again.
“Despite making some very positive strides forward, Hawaii still does not have the full complement of pandemic management mechanisms in place to open tourism safely and avoid a third heartbreaking and destructive spike,” Sakurai said.
However, others, including Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, have questioned why allowing visitors with negative COVID-19 tests to come to Hawaii is more risky than using a self-quarantine to reduce transmission risks.
“I would support a pre-travel test program earlier than later,” Caldwell said Monday at a news conference. “The reason is right now people are coming to Oahu sometimes in the thousands a day with no tests, all agreeing to quarantine, but there’s no guarantee they are quarantining.”
Total arrivals, including residents, averaged 1,779 over the first 13 days of this month, according to state figures.
As the debate wages on, travel demand for Hawaii continues to fall.
More than 30 tourism- dependent companies already have posted mass layoff and furlough notices this month — a signal that Hawaii’s visitor industry had doubts Hawaii’s tourism recovery could begin Oct. 1.
The September notices were on top of the 23 Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act 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.
There are more WARN letters coming out now than at the beginning of the pandemic, an indication that time might have started to run out for some of the businesses that were hanging on for a possible turnaround.
The prior delays meant Hawaii missed out on its most lucrative summer tourism season. Only 22,562 visitors flew to Hawaii in July, which last year was Hawaii’s best tourism month. Tourism arrivals to Hawaii declined 98% in July and 65% through the first seven months of the year.
It was February when Hawaii tourism last saw any gains, and hardships are mounting as the tourism lockdown that started in March has headed into fall. The latest delay means there’s a possibility now that the state will miss out on the “festive season,” a peak travel season that runs from Christmas to New Year’s.
“The hopes for a Hawaii recovery in 2020 are dimming,” said Jack Richards, president and CEO of Pleasant Holidays LLC, one of Hawaii’s largest wholesale travel sellers. “We’ve already gotten reports from hotels that don’t intend to reopen until mid-December. Even if Hawaii reopens on Nov. 1, we’re not quite sure anyone will believe this is a firm date.”
Richards said a leisure trip to Hawaii is hard to sell while a mandatory 14-day quarantine remains in effect for out-of-state travelers. Also, travelers aren’t likely to book unless Hawaii puts out clear instructions as Tahiti and Mexico have done, he said.
“This could be so different. Tahiti has a 72-hour pre- arrivals testing program, but bookings have recovered to about 50% of their pre-COVID levels,” Richards said. “Mexico is getting about 40% to 50% of its prior business. It doesn’t have any testing requirements, but it limits hotel occupancy to 30%.”
Lynette Eastman, general manager of the Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club, said Oahu’s emergency orders and the partial interisland quarantine, which was reinstated Aug. 11, also have had a dampening impact.
“I’ve got some good business on the books for October, but it’s going to wash out now,” Eastman said. “That’s a shame because before the latest interisland quarantines and stay-at-home order, Waikiki was finally starting to look like it had some breath. Now it’s the dead of dead. You could drop a bowling ball down Kalakaua Avenue.”
Caldwell, with Ige’s permission, recently extended an Oahu stay-at-home order, which began Aug. 27 and is now slated to run through Sept. 23. The order is still strict, but parks, beaches and hiking trails have reopened to allow individuals to engage in solo activities, including reading, meditating, eating, jogging and sitting on the beach alone.
Eastman said she understands the need to halt the community spread of COVID-19, but she wishes that government would put as much energy into reopening tourism as it has into collapsing it.
Eastman said the state has stepped up quarantine enforcement since launching the Safe Travels app. She’s noted travelers have begun getting messages that they aren’t allowed to leave their room on the day that their quarantine ends until the time that their flight landed in Hawaii.
“It’s the last day. Do we really need to go there? We are more focused on this than reopening plans or stepping up contact tracers. Ridiculous,” she said. “Meanwhile, everyone continues to lose business and future business. I don’t have a single month in 2021 where my bookings are above single digits.”
The burn isn’t limited to Hawaii hotels and other lodging. Hawaii’s airlines, rental car companies and transportation companies are among the most seriously affected.
Restaurants and retailers — the big-box stores, the small mom-and-pops and everything in between — also have had high temporary and permanent business closure rates.
Even pre-coronavirus, the festive season’s finish could mean the difference between a retailer ending the year “in the red or the black,” said Tina Yamaki, president of Retail Merchants of Hawaii.
“This year the festive season is even more important given all of the closures that retailers have had to endure from the emergency orders and all of the business that they’ve lost from the drop in tourism,” Yamaki said.
Yamaki said retailers are still reeling from Caldwell’s second stay-at-home order, which, unlike the first, bans nonessential businesses from shipping, curbside or online sales.
“I see many retailers that are boarded up now, and I wonder if it’s because they don’t want looting or they are just done and closed forever,” Yamaki said. “Each day that we delay reopening tourism probably means one more business is going under.”