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Kauai gets OK to use resort bubbles for a limited reopening of tourism

  • COURTESY HOKUALA — A TIMBERS RESORT ON KAUAI The pool area of Hokuala — A Timbers Resort on Kauai.

    COURTESY HOKUALA — A TIMBERS RESORT ON KAUAI

    The pool area of Hokuala — A Timbers Resort on Kauai.

  • COURTESY HOKUALA — A TIMBERS RESORT ON KAUAI
                                The AQUA bracelet ensures visitors who are part of a Kauai resort bubble don’t go outside of the resort. If they do, the device notifies authorities.

    COURTESY HOKUALA — A TIMBERS RESORT ON KAUAI

    The AQUA bracelet ensures visitors who are part of a Kauai resort bubble don’t go outside of the resort. If they do, the device notifies authorities.

Kauai wants tourists to put a bracelet on it.

Kauai Mayor Derek S.K. Kawakami announced Tuesday that Gov. David Ige has signed Kauai’s Emergency Rule 16, which would permit visitors at participating resorts to leave their hotel rooms to utilize the resort’s property, including pools and on-site restaurants, during their mandatory quarantine period. But there’s a catch: They’ve got to agree to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet, which will be tracked by participating resorts.

Kauai is the first county to get Ige’s approval on a resort bubble plan.

If more counties are able to follow suit, it might allow for the limited reopening of Hawaii leisure tourism, which collapsed amid COVID-19 fears and tourism lockdowns. 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.

“I’m dealing with being stuck between a rock and a hard place. … Our economic situation and our wherewithal to be able to keep people unemployed is out,” Kawakami said. “We have to come up with this very methodical and thought-out process of being able to return people back to work and yet maintain the health and safety, which is a monumental process, but our team is up to the task.”

Kawakami told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Tuesday that the county has not set a date for when a resort bubble might open but that “several hotels had expressed interest.”

Details are far from being finalized, but the order requires that participating resorts must establish security and enforcement policies to protect the safety of guests and employees. Participating resorts are responsible for security and enforcement of the program, and must continue to follow all other emergency rules, such as mask wearing and physical distancing.

Hotel security will notify the Kauai Police Department if guests tamper with the monitoring unit or leave the resort bubble. Violators of these emergency orders, if convicted, could face a fine of up to $5,000 or serve up to a year in jail, or both.

Whether the program is a good idea has been the subject of widespread community and industry debate since Ige signed an order Aug. 20 allowing the counties to formulate resort bubble plans.

Critics have said it’s unclear how much travel demand a resort bubble might generate given that visitors must consent to tracking and agree not to leave the resort. The program’s strong­est detractors worry Hawaii’s reputation will suffer from the optics of bracelet-­wearing tourists, who are limited to a restricted visitor experience. And, worse yet, they fear the negative publicity that would come if someone at a bubble resort contracts COVID-19 or a visitor gets arrested.

Eric Gill, Unite Here Local 5 financial secretary-treasurer, issued a statement questioning why the state was proceeding with “hastily conceived ‘travel bubble’ plans to open up travel.”

“These plans fail at first glance, as they contain no provisions ensuring the safety of workers and the loved ones we rejoin when we pau work,” Gill said. “Our jobs won’t come back until we have proved that we can keep COVID-19 under control — the visitors we will get while the disease is raging are those we don’t want: the ones who don’t care about their safety or ours.”

Longtime hotel industry veterans Ben Rafter and Keith Vieira say they aren’t fans of the resort bubble concept, which could mar the visitor experience and garner negative publicity for Hawaii’s tourism brand. They’d rather see the state and county focused on getting the pre-arrivals testing program launched rapidly.

However, supporters like Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association President and CEO Mufi Hannemann have touted resort bubbles as a way to allow Hawaii tourism to have at least a soft opening before a broader pre-­arrivals testing program is available. Visitor industry proponents also say they have made the necessary safety investments to bring more employees back to work, which benefits the greater community through trickle-down economic impacts.

“The overarching goal still is reopening trans-Pacific travel, and we aren’t going to deviate from it,” Hanne­mann said. “However, I’m pleased that Kauai is poised to reopen through the bubble that they’ve spent a long time on and is just another way of opening up Hawaii for tourism.”

Kawakami said he views resort bubbles as an added tool to reopening the economy on Kauai, which, like all the other counties, has suffered from a COVID-19­-­related decline in tourism.

While Kauai’s metrics show that it’s ready to accept visitors, Kawakami said the county currently doesn’t have the expertise or resources to run the testing part, which is the state’s kuleana.

Establishing resort bubbles on Kauai might bolster tourism, but Kawakami said they more importantly serve as a contingency plan to keep Kauai tourism from having to completely shut down in the event of another COVID-19 surge.

“Oftentimes you have to go back to the drawing board, so it helps when you actually have something drawn out before having to go back to a blank slate and getting caught flat-footed,” he said.

Kawakami said how quickly resort bubbles materialize on Kauai will depend on the readiness of the county’s resort partners as well as a myriad of health and safety metrics.

“(Kauai) is ready to rock ’n’ roll. We’ve been managing the caseload pretty darn good. Even when we had a big surge, our Department of Health and our team of contact tracers were able to quickly identify close contacts, get them into quarantine, isolate the sick and manage to keep that cluster from getting into community spread.

“But for this Enhanced Movement Quarantine plan, the resort has got to meet us halfway. We are not going to go figure out everyone’s plan for them. We just set the basic foundation. … Like any sort of permitting process, the burden of proof is on the resorts.”

Gary Moore, managing director of Hokuala — A Timbers Resort on Kauai, said his is among the Kauai properties that have applied for resort bubble status. Moore believes the concept would work at the 450-acre resort, which includes 47 luxury vacation rental residences and 72 timeshare units. It’s also got the restaurant Hualani’s, an 18-hole golf course and four pools across two pool decks.

Moore said he had to furlough most of the resort’s staff members when it closed in March, but was able to bring about half back for the resort’s July 1 reopening. Occupancy levels got as high as 55% due to the lifting of the interisland quarantine over the summer, but Moore said they dropped to about 15% or 20% when a modified interisland quarantine was reinstated Aug. 11.

“Literally two weeks ago, when we got the notice from the county that was trying to gauge interest in a resort bubble, we were kind of going through the process of how will we continue to stay afloat with all the employees that we brought back to work,” he said.

If Timbers were approved for the resort bubble, Moore said the resort could be ready as early as Oct. 1, given that it’s been open for some time and has established safety protocols that were put in place for its summer reopening.

Moore said if the resort bubble proceeds, the resort plans to add a 72-hour pre-arrivals testing requirement for guests. He said guests also will have their temperatures taken daily for seven days after arriving. Patrons of Hualani’s, a popular on-site restaurant, also will be required to provide contact information so that the resort can do contact tracing if it becomes necessary.

Initial feedback from guests and owners has been positive, he said.

“If you looked at any other time, it’s like, ‘What? I have to wear a band like I’m on in-house arrest,’” Moore said. “But we found that people got excited.”

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