Gov. David Ige’s announcement last week that Hawaii will launch a pre-arrival testing program Oct. 15 kicked off the start of a fall tourism reopening for Hawaii.
There are those Hawaii residents and business leaders who are still questioning the need, workability and usefulness of Ige’s plan, which has been pushed back three times. Given the delays, some critics are wondering why the state didn’t roll out a fully developed playbook for executing the plan in conjunction with Wednesday’s announcement.
The reopening is just 23 days away, and many details of the plan are yet to be worked out.
Reopening tourism in the middle of a pandemic is complicated, especially when Hawaii has not completely figured out how to reopen its own local economy without seeing a spike in coronavirus cases. Also, so much has changed in terms of technology and state leadership since June when Ige first discussed launching a testing program to allow travelers to bypass a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine for out-of-state passengers that’s been in place since March 26.
Right now, travelers who have taken a Food and Drug Administration-authorized COVID-19 nucleic acid amplification test from a certified lab and tested negative within 72 hours of traveling to Hawaii would be allowed to bypass the quarantine. But new technology has emerged since the state’s original Aug. 1 launch date for the pre-arrival testing program, and by the time the state actually restarts tourism, there might be greater availability of less costly, more rapid and less intrusive tests.
There are still a lot of moving parts, but Sherry Menor-McNamara, president and CEO of Chamber of Commerce Hawaii, said it’s imperative that the latest tourism reopening moves forward on time.
“We’ve had months to prepare and come up with a comprehensive tourism reopening plan,” Menor- McNamara said. “Setting a date for Oct. 15 is the first step; now we have to make sure that we stay firm to that date. We’ve been told that a little more than half of Hawaii’s businesses can’t reopen until tourism does. We can’t keep moving the goal post when the ball is in the air.”
While Ige did not produce a cohesive plan Wednesday to reopen tourism, he did announce a new team to improve the effort. Ige has asked Maj. Gen. Ken Hara, Hawaii Emergency Management Agency director, to spearhead collaboration among federal, state and county resources in his role as incident commander.
Dr. Libby Char, who started Wednesday as state health director after Bruce Anderson’s retirement, will manage the state’s public health programs, ensuring that there is collaboration among state, county, and private health care partners.
Lt. Gov. Josh Green is taking charge of the state’s pre-arrival testing program and the state’s COVID-19 vaccination strategy.
Dr. Virginia Pressler, former director of the state Department of Health, will lead the Laulima Alliance, a team of public- and private-sector resources designed to give more people a voice in public policy making and pandemic response.
“Together with the progress we’ve made, and continue to make, in the fight against COVID-19, this new leadership team gives us confidence that the time is right to launch our pre-travel COVID-19 testing program, which is an important step toward reviving our economy while continuing to protect public health,” Ige said Wednesday in a statement.
Sumner La Croix, research fellow at the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization, said Ige’s reorganization could prove to be a positive development.
“It’s something that potentially could have some big benefits to the state, but the question is how fast. If the benefits don’t really come until Dec. 1, it will be too late,” he said.
Though it’s early days yet. La Croix and his colleagues Tim Brown and F. DeWolfe Miller in June put forward a detailed plan for the “Prevention of Travel-related Reintroduction of COVID-19 Infection in the State of Hawaii,” which proposed travelers could bypass Hawaii’s mandatory 14-day quarantine if they cleared temperature and symptom screening and COVID-19 tests in their departure cities.
La Croix said for Hawaii to successfully reopen tourism with a pre-arrival testing plan on Oct. 15, several steps have to unfold. First, Hawaii will need to get its own COVID-cases under control. Second, there has to be a mechanism to successfully enforce the quarantine. Third, there has to be a containment system in place for visitors who are COVID-19 positive or were exposed to the new coronavirus.
“Trying to get all of this done by Oct. 15 is a stretch. Sometimes putting people’s feet to the fire is a good way of getting them to perform; other times it just doens’t happen,” La Croix said. “With the state making this decision, there are potentially large benefits. Tourism is a $2 billion-a-month industry. The question is, Can we put those three priors in place? It’s a big ask.”
While the state’s website gohawaii.com has been updated to say visitors to Hawaii may soon bypass the strict quarantine with a COVID-19 test, Jack Richards, president and CEO of Pleasant Holidays, one of Hawaii’s largest wholesale travel sellers, said more information about where to go for the test should be made available. Also, he said, the state might want to rethink its position that all travelers, including children of all ages, get tested, as many of the family travelers who are considering Hawaii aren’t likely to chose the destination if babies are required to test.
Not even Hawaii’s visitor bureaus have all the information that they need to disseminate. The Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau has been in touch with national and regional media throughout the summer, said Jay Talwar, HVCB chief marketing officer.
“As soon as we heard the governor’s announcement, we provided media with that update along with travel sellers, industry partners, airlines, etc.,” Talwar said.
Sen. Glenn Wakai, chairman of the state Senate’s Committee on Economic Development, Tourism, and Technology, said, “I’ve been criticizing and pushing to get something done and have only been met with silence. What we’ve had is bureaucrats trying to come up with a plan to tell the private sector what they need.”
In the meantime the private sector has begun stepping up.
Avi Mannis, senior vice president of marketing for Hawaiian Airlines, said the most important next step in the reopening of Hawaii tourism is making sure that there is clear communication for consumers about what to do and what to expect.
“My sense is that the state understands that and is making progress. We stand ready with our communication channels to get the word out,” Mannis said. “Right now understanding how to get tested is going to be the biggest barrier to people choosing to travel, whether that is locals traveling or visitors.”
Richards said the company began marketing Hawaii again as soon as the governor made his announcement. But Richards said he worries that not enough detail is available.
“Tahiti has a similar testing program that has been very successful. They’re up to about 50% of last year’s travelers; however, the difference is they’ve had a very detailed plan that let travelers know what to expect from the start,” Richards said.
California visitor Rosie Cruz, who was on Oahu from Aug. 3 through Sunday, agreed that there’s a need for a strong communication plan. Cruz said visitors need to know about all the entry requirements, including testing and registration in the Safe Travels app. The state also needs to provide information about lockdown rules and what’s open and closed in Hawaii, she said.
Cruz said she and her family originally began planning their trip when Hawaii was going to launch its pre-arrival testing program Aug. 1. Though Cruz said the family was disappointed when the state delayed the program’s start, they decided not to delay their trip because the main purpose of the visit was to get their daughter settled at the University of Hawaii.
Cruz said the family experienced difficulties early on in trying to get a test from CVS, which told them it would take eight to 10 days. Once the pre-arrival testing program was postponed, Cruz said, the family’s attention turned to quarantine logistics to ensure that everything that they needed could be delivered during the 14-day period.
However, she said the most complicated part of the trip came after quarantine when the family had to sort through unclear reopening and lockdown messaging. Cruz said she saw many visitors getting tickets on the beach because they didn’t understand the boundaries of the emergency orders.
“It felt less welcoming than when we were here in February, scouting the school for our daughter,” she said. “People’s level of fear was high, which was more apparent in Waikiki than any other part of the island.”
Cruz said the family ended up extending their trip in Hawaii by two weeks because of the California fires. If friends ask, she probably wouldn’t recommend visiting Hawaii yet. In her opinion, testing is still complicated, and she doesn’t think the community is ready to welcome visitors back.
“It was heartbreaking to see all of those beautiful places closed and all of the people out of work and not being able to go to the beach and be in the sun where it’s healing,” she said.