Gov. David Ige has set Oct. 15 as the new date to launch a pre-arrivals testing program to reopen tourism in Hawaii.
Now the state’s woebegone industry is hoping the third time will be the charm.
The plan, 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.
“This pre-travel testing will allow us to add a greater element of safety for travel into our state,” Ige said during a media briefing on Wednesday, adding that it fits into the state’s plan to address its top three challenges, including protecting public health, reviving the economy and strengthening the community.
Demonstrating that Hawaii’s public health response is robust is going to be important to getting some members of the community to accept any plan that creates a pathway to increasing tourism.
However, much of the state has been hurting as the drop in visitor arrivals decimated the state’s tourism-dependent economy. The Hawaii Tourism Authority reported that July visitor arrivals had dropped 98%. Even with a fairly robust January and February, arrivals through the first seven months of this year had decreased by 65%.
Members of Hawaii’s visitor industry are concerned about the impact of another two-week pause in the start of Hawaii’s pre-arrivals testing program. However, if Ige’s new date sticks, this latest news is not the worst-case scenario many visitor industry businesses had feared, as Ige’s other delays were monthlong pushbacks.
The testing program allows travelers who have taken a Food and Drug Administration-approved COVID-19 NAAT test from a CLIA lab and tested negative 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.
Wednesday’s actions did not change the interisland quarantine, which remains in place through at least Oct. 15 for anyone arriving on any island other than Oahu. For more information, visit the frequently asked questions at hawaiicovid19.com.
Lt. Gov. Josh Green, who has COVID-19 and joined the press conference while quarantining at home, said the state has set up partnerships with Kaiser Permanente and CVS Pharmacy, who will be updating their websites for Hawaii travelers now that the state has a firm date.
Green said most tests will cost $120 to $140 per person, but Kaiser might make the test free for its members.
He said an accepted pre-arrival test would be required of all arriving passengers who want to bypass the quarantine, including children of all ages. Green said travelers who don’t receive the results of their pre-arrivals test in time must stay in quarantine until they get their results back.
Ige said those traveling to the islands would need to get a test prior to arrival to bypass the quarantine.
“Initially we don’t want to compete with the local ability to test, but we are looking at all of these new tests that are coming online and getting FDA approval and we will be finding those that are most effective and working them into our testing program,” he said.
However, Green said the state will work with the state Department of Health to tweak the pre-arrivals testing program as cheaper, quicker yet reliable tests become available. Additionally, Green said the state Department of Transportation has issued a request for proposals to increase the state’s testing capacity by 13,000 tests a day.
“Having extra thousands and thousands of tests will be very valuable,” Green said. “Once we’ve streamlined this we’ll rely on the governor’s wisdom to decide if we need to expand our testing as people come.”
Green said enhanced testing capacity, especially if easier and cheaper tests become available, also might be a way to implement a second test requirement to ensure travelers who come to the islands do not become infected after the 72-hour window.
Mufi Hannemann, president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association, said more details about the state’s plan still need to be fleshed out. However, Hannemann was enthusiastic about Ige’s announcement, which he said allows Hawaii’s visitor industry to start executing plans to bring tourists back just in time to avert even greater economic fallout.
“The $300 weekly unemployment plus-up has expired. Health benefits also are in jeopardy,” Hannemann said. “We can deal with these things in a better way now that we can return some people to work.”
Stephanie Donoho, administrative director of the Kohala Coast Resort Association, said about 5,000 Kohala Coast resort employees have been out of work since March and the needs are great. On Monday, the association began a food distribution program using county CARES Act funds to support its furloughed employees and those who work at the shopping centers and small businesses in Waikoloa and Mauna Lani.
“The line of cars backed up at every resort was mind-numbing. We served more than 3,800 employees and almost 20,000 residents,” Donoho said. “During that distribution, while our employees were appreciative of the help, what they really wanted was accurate information on when they can return to work.”
Times have been tough, even for visitor industry businesses like Outrigger Hospitality Group, which kept four properties open during the pandemic to house first responders, military, air crew and kamaaina.
Sean Dee, Outrigger Hospitality Group’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer, said even with a pre-arrivals testing program, research shows that demand will ramp up slowly, but at least it would allow for some business expansion.
“With extremely low occupancies we can’t bring all of our hosts back from furlough yet, but we can’t wait to welcome COVID-19-negative travelers to our properties and get our hosts back to work,” Dee said.
Hannemann said next the state and counties must assist the visitor industry in getting the word out that Hawaii is ready to welcome back leisure travelers and to work on finding a safe way to reopen more beaches, hiking trails, parks, attractions, restaurants and retail.
“We’re going to need the state to stick to the plan and we desperately need a visitor industry tourism communication strategy to run parallel to it,” Donoho said.
California visitor Lyra Matthews also stressed the need for better communication. Matthews said she booked a trip to Hawaii to get respite after her mother died, but was caught off guard by the quarantine, which wasn’t the experience that she wanted.
“It was very off-putting,” said Matthews, who brought her twin 8-year-old sons, Adonis and Aden, on the trip. “I do have a negative test for me and my children, but because of the rules we have to quarantine.”
Matthews said Outrigger Waikiki helped diffuse her stress and she plans to return once the quarantine is no longer in place.
“Hawaii needs to make up its mind about where it’s going,” she said. “Other places have reopened. This is nothing that we can’t overcome together. We can get to a new normal.”
While the state works on its pre-arrivals testing program, the master plan to reopen Hawaii tourism, Kauai is hedging its bets and other counties are expected to follow suit.
Kauai Mayor Derek S.K. Kawakami said Tuesday that Ige had 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.
Ige signed an order Aug. 20 allowing the counties to formulate resort bubble plans. Kauai is the first county to obtain Ige’s approval on a resort bubble plan.
Establishing resort bubbles on Kauai might bolster tourism, but Kawakami told the Star-Advertiser on Tuesday that 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.
“You should be working on contingency plans concurrently with the master plan,” he said. “In this kind of situation, you can expect things to go wrong.”
Gary Moore, managing director of Hokuala — A Timbers Resort on Kauai, said his resort, which saw a significant drop in business after the partial interisland quarantine resumed, is pursuing approval from Kauai County to join the resort bubble program.
“Look, this disease is not going away. There’s not a magic vaccine,” Moore said. “I’d love to be wrong about it, but I think we’ll be living with this through 2021 at least. We have to find a way to live with this. We can’t stay shut down forever. It will end up doing more harm.”