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Editorial | Our View

Editorial: Letting tourists back in, carefully

Shortly after Gov. David Ige announced Wednesday that the state’s pre-travel testing program will start in mid-October, the Hawaii Tourism Authority issued a statement indicating the visitor industry will be ready to roll, having established protocols to ensure the safety of residents and workforce who will be welcoming COVID-19-negative travelers.

HTA’s new president and CEO, John De Fries, added, “We continue to educate visitors before and after they arrive … to make them more mindful and aware about their responsibility to keep themselves and our residents safe.” To be effective, this visitor education about Hawaii’s “new normal” must be both engaging and nonstop.

While this all adds up to a tall can-do public health order, it’s also must-do for reviving Hawaii’s tourism-dependent economic health. In late August, HTA reported that slightly more than 2,560 visitors flew to Hawaii in July, marking an astonishing 98% drop from the 995,210 visitors who came in July 2019; and overall, visitor arrivals in the first seven months of the year plummeted about 65%.

Due to surges in COVID-19 cases and other concerns, the launch of Hawaii’s pre-travel testing program — initially slated for Aug. 1 — has been repeatedly pushed back. Many in the tourism industry, along with Chamber of Commerce Hawaii and others, are rightly urging the state to stick with the Oct. 15 start.

Earlier this month, the state posted 25 mass layoff and furlough notices from hospitality companies — when Hawaii’s visitor industry doubted the then-slated Oct. 1 reopening, would stick. To avoid further delay, which would surely exacerbate economic pain, residents and the industry workforce must do their part to help kick-start tourism.

While visitors come to the islands to relax, there can be no relaxing of mask-wearing, physical-distancing and other virus-related safety directives. Over the span of six months now, everyone here has become acquainted with what happens when we let our guard down. To halt rising infection rates, which can quickly strain the limits of the state’s health care system, public life restrictions must continue to be heeded.

Smooth-running pre-travel testing will be key to avoiding future stops and starts. Under the program, trans-Pacific travelers who complete a U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved nasal swab COVID-19 test within 72 hours of their flight arrival — and are able to produce evidence of negative test results — will be eligible to bypass the state’s quarantine rules.

In addition, arrivals must undergo a health screening process and temperature checks. Before boarding their flights, they must fill out travel and health forms, which will provide a QR code to speed up the arrivals process. Anyone arriving without a COVID-19 test will be required to quarantine for 14 days, or until they are able to provide negative test results.

In an optimistic move, the state Transportation Department has issued a request for proposals to increase Hawaii’s testing capacity by 13,000 tests a day; travelers should be charged premium rates for the convenience of being tested here.

Also, taking shape on Kauai as a sort of contingency plan — to avoid a complete tourism shutdown should infections surge — is a “resort bubble” program, which would allow travelers to leave their hotel rooms and roam parts of the resort while under quarantine, if they wear an electronic monitoring bracelet.

Amid this pandemic, there’s no expectation that trans-Pacific travelers will immediately flock here at even a fraction of last year’s record-setting levels. But sensible and well-organized pre-travel testing, along with reduced airfare and other lures, will bring some visitors. And that could be enough to provide Hawaii’s tourism industry, and overall economy, with a much-needed measure of stability.

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