There are just 18 days to go before the Oct. 15 start of the state’s pre-arrival testing program. Yet officials are still working out the kinks of Safe Travels, travel.hawaii.gov, the online application that collects traveler information needed to enforce public safety measures related to the coronavirus.
Travelers are supposed to complete an online application and receive a QR code, which resembles a square bar code. The screener at the airport uses an iPad to read the QR code and is able to quickly review passenger information for clearance or secondary screening.
Once a traveler’s information is in the system, it can be used by officials, including police, to check on visitors who didn’t obtain a negative COVID-19 test result prior to arrival and are required to quarantine for 14 days. The application also automatically generates quarantine check-in reminders as emails and text messages, making it easier for the state Department of Health to reach out if there are medical issues to address.
Safe Travels, which began Aug. 28, was supposed to simplify the paper-based process, which had required different forms for interisland and trans-Pacific travel. However, Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim and Maui County Mayor Mike Victorino said they are still supplementing the state’s Safe Travels application with their own data solutions and have brought in extra people to verify traveler information at the airport.
Oahu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami did not immediately respond to Star-Advertiser requests for comment.
Kim and Victorino said they still aren’t getting as much real-time visitor information as they want to contact trace and enforce emergency orders. They said the application still can’t verify addresses, and they aren’t sure how it’s going to verify negative COVID-19 tests.
Nor does the new system deliver on all the features state officials had said it would in the early days of its development. For instance, it isn’t set up to allow GPS tracking to “ping” a visitor’s phone or computer for a location.
It’s not always practical either. Visitors can visit the application, which is built on a Google cloud, only through email, Google or Facebook logins. If visitors haven’t set up an account at home, they can do it at the airport with assistance from a screener. However, travelers who are in quarantine and don’t have access to a smartphone or a computer or who are staying in rural areas without much connectivity will have to call in to complete their daily check-ins.
Some returning Hawaii residents have told the Star-Advertiser the site wouldn’t allow them to input all of their information.
“The state’s form doesn’t have the information that we need,” Kim said, adding that he brought up his concerns with the state many “moons ago” and “today there is no difference.”
Kim said shortcomings have led to greater inconvenience for travelers and county civil defense officials who have had to address the shortcomings.
“It’s a real bugaboo in terms of time and energy,” Kim said. “We can’t have a system that depends on civil defense to go to the airport. You’d be surprised how many times phone numbers don’t work, addresses are bogus, and it’s a difficult thing to check on a person’s exemption status. There are still a lot of questions about the pre-test too.”
Kim said the problems with the system have been manageable given that travel demand has dampened to Hawaii island, but he’s worried what will happen when tourism expands.
Victorino is more optimistic than Kim that the state will work out the bugs before the return of more trans-Pacific tourism.
“I’m not totally comfortable with everything; however, I am working through the bugs. Our people have been working though some of these challenges,” Victorino said. “Hopefully over the next few weeks, we’ll get ourselves up and running as far as the local quarantine and travel between the islands and hopefully be ready by Oct. 15 for trans-Pacific flights and those passengers.”
The state’s been trying to get Safe Travels right since it debuted in May as a website, which wasn’t all that successful because it was optional. Then, the state used CARES Act funds to award a contract to Esri, a California software company that had already developed a Safe Travels application for interisland use.
That contract would have been worth $1.7 million had it been completed, but it wasn’t, as the state decided it couldn’t scale up Esri for trans-Pacific travel. On July 27, the state awarded a new $638,000 CARES Act-funded contract to Google and its partner, SpringML.
Chief Information Officer Douglas Murdock at the state’s Office of Enterprise Technology Services said in an email that the Safe Travels system “works properly and the data is available to several agencies in each county.”
“We’ve been providing the counties with access to the Google and (Esri) dashboard and data in a second format. The dashboards show real-time data on every traveler, when they arrived, when they are leaving, where they are staying, contact information, and quarantine and daily check-in status,” Murdock said. “Nearly 100 users from law enforcement to emergency management officials have been granted access.”
Murdock said the application “was built and brought online very quickly to prepare for the opening of trans-Pacific travel.”
“We are continuously working to improve the system and to assist the counties. We have scheduled more trainings to provide the counties with additional information,” he said. “Updates to the platform are being made weekly to add features or improve the user interface.”
Murdock said only a traveler’s phone and email are currently pre-verified, but that “address verification is in the current list of development tasks.”
“While we are highly encouraging travelers to use a digital device, we are aware that some may have difficulty in doing so,” he said.
Travelers without access to the system can do their daily quarantine check-in by calling the Safe Travels Service Desk at 855-599-0888 from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
“Calls outside of working hours will go to voicemail and be returned the next business day,” Murdock said. “We are working on a voice automation system to allow travelers to check directly into the system using any phone.”
Murdock said fixes and planned features are included in the state’s initial contract with Google and SpringML. However, he said it’s going to cost an extra $97,000 to add additional dashboard capability and will take $300,000 more to add features to improve communications with travelers with text and voice messaging.
Breaking the rules
From its Aug. 28 launch through Wednesday, Safe Travels screened over 58,000 passengers at Hawaii airports. On a typical day, Murdock said, 2,000 to 3,000 travelers are screened using the system. But thousands more are expected to come once Hawaii provides a way for them to bypass the quarantine.
Responsible travelers are likely to follow the rules even if it means taking a COVID-19 test that costs between $80 and $250 and isn’t always easy to get. However, there are already well documented incidents of travelers attempting to bypass the quarantine.
Some have given entry officials false addresses and others checked out of hotels early to avoid staying in quarantine. In some cases, they’ve used vacation rentals to avoid detection. There also have been cases of visitors and locals alike who have been caught disregarding various state and county emergency orders by venturing out.
As travel to Hawaii has picked up, incidents have grown and are expected to climb as visitors start coming back to the state, said Angela Keen, co-founder of Hawaiian Quarantine Kapu Breakers, a hui of more than 6,000 active members who work to catch quarantine violators.
Keen said the group exists in part because Safe Travels and other quarantine enforcement tools aren’t working.
“Safe Travels is nothing like what we thought it would be. I don’t even think they are using the right platform; I think they are using Google,” she said. “One of my tech people said, ‘If you pay $6 a month for a Google platform, you can do exactly the same thing if you are talented.’
“They didn’t do anything worth a half a million dollars and I don’t know why they didn’t use local talent.”
Keen said it’s critical that Safe Travels is able to verify addresses and other important information such as COVID-19 tests and exemptions. She said Kapu Breakers also has encountered individuals with exemptions who broke the rules of their modified quarantine but couldn’t be apprehended because their paperwork wasn’t complete in the state system.
“The current system is a joke. It’s like a Band-Aid with no sticky on it,” Keen said, adding that so far Kapu Breakers has assisted in apprehending about 60 quarantine breakers.
Visitor Aloha Society of Hawaii’s COVID-19 Flight Assistance Program helped 272 visitors, most of them quarantine violators, get home between April 6 and Friday. Sometimes the organization simply helped make travel arrangements, but it also paid to send home individuals who were deemed destitute.
Among the visitors sent home were 21 members of the California-based cult Carbon Nation and 14 members of the Colorado-based cult Love Has Won, VASH President and CEO Jessica Lani Rich said.
“Carbon Nation was flaunting the fact that they were having a Hawaii island vacation and violating the rules,” said Rich, who assisted the group in returning to Los Angeles in June.
Love Has Won had rented a house on Kauai but ran into opposition from neighbors and left the island after protests escalated. The group decided to leave Hawaii earlier this month after three of its leaders flew to Kahului Airport intending to relocate the group on Maui. While they were filling out travel forms at the airport, screeners discovered they had reservations at a short-term vacation rental that wasn’t approved for quarantining travelers.