State officials said they will not accept the less costly of two COVID-19 tests United Airlines wants to offer passengers to encourage travel to Hawaii.
United, which brought more travelers to Hawaii than any other carrier pre-pandemic, said Thursday it will offer COVID-19 tests for $250 or $80 to Hawaii-bound customers originating from San Francisco. A negative test will allow Oahu visitors to avoid spending 14 days in quarantine at the start of their trip. The $250 test can be done at the airport in 15 minutes. The $80 test is done at home and mailed to a lab days before travel.
United said its plan met all the requirements of Gov. David Ige’s administration, but Lt. Gov. Josh Green said the less costly of the two tests will not be accepted.
“Testing at the airport meets all the criteria and could be a game-changer for Hawaii,” Green said. “The mail-in component has not been approved. Perhaps it will be in the future. Right now we are not taking mail-in testing that is not witnessed.”
United spokeswoman Annabelle Cottee said in an email, “The governor outlined the testing the state is accepting in his 13th proclamation yesterday; both tests we’re offering our customers meet those requirements.”
There are only 21 days until the Oct. 15 launch of Hawaii’s pre-arrivals testing program, which creates a pathway for trans-Pacific travelers to bypass the 14-day quarantine that’s been in place since March 26. The state has pushed back the pre-arrivals testing program three times.
Tourism officials said the confusion over the United testing program is troubling, given the state’s recent record of reversing course on plans to reopen the tourism industry.
Keith Vieira, principal of KV and Associates, Hospitality Consulting, said the constant stops and starts are “killing the state’s travel partners” and are why only about 50% of the state’s visitor industry will even be open for the Oct. 15 tourism restart.
“Here we have a partner like United that comes up with something that makes a lot of sense, and then we shoot them down,” Vieira said. “I don’t understand. It’s a one-party state. They don’t have to fight with anyone. They just have to sit down and decide.”
Green, who was among those brokering the United deal, said the state agreed that San Francisco travelers who are Hawaii-bound may elect to take a rapid Abbott ID NOW COVID-19 test — administered by GoHealth Urgent Care (gohealthuc.com) and its partner Dignity Health — on the same day as their flight departing from SFO and get their results back in 15 minutes.
But the state is now rejecting United’s plan to offer customers a self-collected, mail-in test administered by Color (color.com) and provide the sample within 72 hours of their trip.
Cottee said, “United is proud to be the first U.S. airline to offer this convenient testing program for our customers. Leading up to October 15, we will continue working in partnership with the state and our healthcare providers to ensure our COVID testing meets all local requirements for entry into Hawaii and visitors can safely return to the islands.”
Green said Ige “would prefer that all tests be witnessed, and we’re working on options for that.”
Green, named head of the state’s testing program last week by Ige, said he’s also working with the governor’s team to determine whether younger children, under age 5, might be allowed to bypass the quarantine without testing. The governor’s order says starting Oct. 15, all travelers seeking to bypass the quarantine are subject to the testing requirement.
“Right now the main debate is whether children under 5 need a test,” Green said. “We’re trying to convince our larger testing partners like CVS and Walgreens to go down to age 5. But we do have partners that will do mail-in tests for any age at home.”
The mail-in tests would have to be witnessed to get state approval. Green said Vault Health uses teleheath to watch people put their samples in vials. He hopes the state will eventually be able to allow self-monitored mail-in tests.
“Nothing is perfect, but I will say this: I do not expect people to game the system. You have to be pretty dysfunctional to be willing to spend $130 for a test and order it and take the time to send it back and still not actually swab properly,” Green said. “Very few people, I think, will do that — sufficiently low numbers so that it wouldn’t add any extra health risks to us.”
Green said his goal is to offer enough testing variety that all travelers get an approved test before visiting Hawaii. He said the state already has testing partnerships with Kaiser, CVS and Walgreens and is working on a partnership with Quest labs, APS out of Portland, Ore., and the mail-in test company Vault. Travelers also may make arrangements to get a Hawaii-approved test from their own primary health providers, he said.
“We are trying to accommodate all different possibilities, like someone that lives in a rural community, someone who has a 9-year-old child,” he said. “Keep in mind that we still also will screen people at the airport and be available to test them again if they develop any symptoms here in Hawaii. Lots of people will be offering tests at or around hotels with special packages. We’re hearing a lot of additional support for the program, especially in this first month, to make sure we go the extra mile to test more.”
Green said the state also is working on written guidance that would allow visitors from Japan or other countries who have taken a test with a seal of approval from their own governments to participate in the pre-arrivals testing program.
Jack Richards, president and CEO of Pleasant Holidays, one of Hawaii’s largest travel sellers, said, “We’re looking for consistent policy so we can explain it to travelers.”
“These kinds of changes (to the United plan) aren’t unusual across the destinations, but they aren’t good.”
While some United travelers out of San Francisco would be willing to pay $250 for a rapid test, Richards said the cost could prove too steep for some, given that it’s nearly as high as the airfare.
He said some travelers also might be reluctant to book until they understand the rules and regulations, especially pertaining to children since Hawaii is a huge family market.
Even the Hawaii Tourism Authority, the state’s tourism agency, has found it challenging to keep up with the rule changes.
Newly hired HTA president and CEO John De Fries told his board Thursday, “This morning the Star-Advertiser reported that United Airlines would be offering pre-testing coming out of San Francisco. Within the hour we learned that the Department of Health has not approved that test as yet. As I just made that comment to you, for all I know the DOH may have pivoted,” De Fries said. “My point being that myself and the staff will do our best to take information that is coming out of the governor’s office and adjust accordingly and advise our stakeholders accordingly.
“But I just want to make you aware that it is this ‘stop, go, stop, go,’ and we can hope that the new leadership team that was announced last week consisting of the governor, lieutenant governor, mayor, Gen. (Kenneth) Hara and Drs. Libby Char and Virginia Pressler will lead us to a more coherent communication plan going forward.”