Due to surges in COVID-19 cases and related concerns, the launch of Hawaii’s pre-travel testing program — initially slated for Aug. 1 — has been repeatedly, frustratingly, pushed back. With the latest kickoff date now less than a week away, Gov. David Ige finally appears poised to fire the starting gun.
Amid pandemic there are few economic or public health guarantees. Even so, Hawaii stands a much better chance of seeing forward movement in recovery with a statewide, across-the-board policy for incoming travelers.
To that end, Ige should rescind a pre-travel program provision he abruptly rolled out this week, which allows counties to opt out, as it creates confusion that could make it difficult to manage the flow of tourists effectively and efficiently.
Under the current set-up, trans-Pacific travelers who get an approved negative test for COVID-19 — taken within 72 hours of the final leg of travel here — are eligible to bypass the state’s mandatory 14-day quarantine in participating counties. Those arriving with test results still pending must quarantine until a negative result is secured.
With the countdown well underway to the Oct. 15 reset, Hawaii island Mayor Harry Kim said this week he intends to opt out of the program because of concern that one pre-test per passenger is not enough to keep his county safe. Likewise, Hawaii’s other county mayors are pushing for a second layer of testing.
However, Ige has rejected the second-test proposal, noting that at this time it could deplete Hawaii’s testing capacity, thereby preventing residents from receiving tests should they be needed.
So, it appears that a mayor opting out would amount to relegating trans-Pacific travelers, regardless of test results, to full quarantine in that particular county — a confusing situation and likely deal-breaker for those with a limited count of vacation days. Why this complication is even arising less than a week from reopening is unacceptable.
No one expects trans-Pacific travelers to be quickly flocking here at even a fraction of last year’s record-setting levels — but there’s reason for optimism that tourism’s stalled economic engine can be sufficiently revved up to deliver a much-needed measure of stability. Counties opting out can’t expect much more than engine sputter.
While nasal swab testing is not, in and of itself, prevention, more of it contributes to the ongoing effort to flag the threat of virus transmission. At a Wednesday news conference at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport, Dr. Libby Char, director of the state Health Department, said studies indicate the pre-testing will catch between 20% to 80% of cases.
As a follow-up tactic, Lt. Gov. Josh Green proposed random screening 10% of passengers — targeting returning residents — using an optional second test, which the state would offer for free and administer four days after arrival. While details still must be worked out, including how the tests would be paid for, the move appears to be a worthwhile safeguard.
Still, neighbor island mayors and the Honolulu City Council have called for something more restrictive — requiring arrivals to secure a second negative test result to get out of quarantine.
If individual counties want to add such a second layer, voluntarily for travelers, that could be allowed as long as they have the testing capacity. But any such county layer should not mean an opt-out from a statewide and cohesive trans-Pacific reopening policy.
A statewide pre-travel testing program that keeps moving parts to a minimum can serve as a solid starting point for welcoming back tourists. And as the tourism industry workforce further assembles, it must go full-throttle in efforts to educate visitors about Hawaii’s mask-wearing, physical-distancing and other virus-safety directives.