The first tourists whom Hawaii will welcome to the state since March without going through a 14-day quarantine will start arriving Thursday.
That’s when Gov. David Ige kicks off his pre-arrivals testing program.
But as of Monday state and county officials were still moving the goalposts on a program that’s already been delayed three times.
The testing program would allow travelers who provide written confirmation from a state-approved COVID-19 testing partner of a negative test result from a test administered to the traveler within 72 hours from the final leg of departure to bypass a mandatory 14-day self- quarantine for out-of state passengers.
The plan, which was first announced in June, was originally going to launch Aug. 1, before Ige pushed it back to Sept. 1 and then Oct. 1 before finally settling on Thursday.
There are only two days to go now. Yet so many changes are still in play that even Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, incident commander for Hawaii’s coronavirus response, couldn’t share exactly how the pre-arrivals testing process is going to work during a Monday briefing before the House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness.
“What’s not totally clear is exactly how all of the counties are going to implement, if they implement, a post-arrivals testing,” Hara said during the House hearing.
Hara said Ige is delegating the authority to implement post-arrival supplemental testing to the counties.
“They will be responsible to pay for any supplemental test and any operationalization — so the state will not have anything to do with post-arrival testing,” he said.
Hawaii island Mayor Harry Kim said Monday that trans-Pacific travel there would reopen with a two-test plan that required travelers who participated in the state’s pre-arrivals testing program to take a free rapid antigen test at the airport upon arrival on the island. If travelers fail the test, Kim said, they would be administered a PCR test and have to quarantine where they have reservations until the test comes back negative or they recover from COVID-19.
Kim said he’s still working on establishing rules that would allow interisland travelers to bypass the quarantine.
Details also are muddy on what other counties will require to lift the quarantine for trans-Pacific travelers or interisland travelers.
Hara said Ige planned to meet with all of the county mayors Monday. Attorney General Clare Connors also was reviewing a 14th emergency proclamation that would likely be on Ige’s desk Monday, he said.
Carl Bonham, executive director of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization, expressed frustration at the pace of decisions and questioned the legality of allowing out-of-state travelers to come into a neighbor island and bypass quarantine while not allowing residents to go from county to county under the same rules.
“What we are hearing right now is continued confusion. No one seems to know exactly what the rules are, and we are three days from when we are accepting visitors under a new set of rules that are supposed to be worked out,” Bonham said. “All we are doing is prolonging the pain because we can’t come up with a set of guidelines.”
HMSA President and CEO Mark Mugiishi and Ray Vara, president and CEO of Hawaii Pacific Health, also questioned whether Hawaii island could legally mandate a second COVID-19 test for trans-Pacific travelers who were exempted from the quarantine.
“It doesn’t seem like it would pass U.S. constitutional muster,” said Mugiishi, who, along with Vara, serves on the House Select Committee. “We aren’t allowed to mandate any kind of medical treatment or testing.”
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell told reporters Monday that the city supports the state’s pre-travel program provided it will, as promised, conduct additional, post-travel random surveillance testing four days after arrival on 10% of visitors who had been cleared via pre-travel tests.
“As we open up, we’re taking some risks,” Caldwell said. “The pre-testing travel program will not screen out every visitor who could be positive. We’ve been told by the lieutenant governor it will screen out 80%, meaning 20% continue to come through that could be positive.”
Caldwell said random surveillance testing is critical to understanding how reopening is going.
“It has to be random, it can’t be voluntary … and you need to test about 10%, which will tell us how many people are getting through that are positive. Because if it’s a larger number, greater than 20%, then maybe we’re not so ready,” he said.
Meanwhile, the city wants Ige’s permission to start its own program that would give those passengers who have not been cleared through pre-travel testing a second opportunity to bypass the existing 14-day quarantine by taking a test once they arrive at the airport, Caldwell said.
Caldwell said the city is talking to a private mobile testing lab company about conducting up to 10,000 rapid, same-day tests with the cost to be picked up by the arrivals. The incoming travelers would need to quarantine while test results are pending, or up to six hours.
Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami is working with tourism industry partners to promote a voluntary post- arrival testing program. According to the plan, visitors who agree to voluntarily quarantine for 72 hours and then take a voluntary post- arrivals test would get an incentive like a restaurant card or other freebie from the county. Kawakami hasn’t indicated what his plans are for allowing interisland travelers to bypass the quarantine.
Maui County Managing Director Sandy Baz said during a news briefing Monday that the county is considering a voluntary second-test plan, but didn’t provide details. Baz said the city received verbal agreement from Ige to allow Maui County residents to travel among Maui, Molokai and Lanai without having to quarantine or be subjected to the pre-travel testing program. Baz said Ige also has verbally approved a plan for Maui to allow interisland travelers to participate in the pre-arrivals testing program.
Kim said he expects Ige will solidify trans-Pacific travel requirements today but that interisland tweaks might take a little longer.
Tourism leaders say clarifying interisland travel also will be important to Hawaii’s tourism health, especially since a slow recovery is anticipated for trans-Pacific travel.
Bob Berges, CMCA director of resort operations for Hawaii Vacation Condos by Outrigger, said since the interisland travel restrictions were put in place in mid-August, bookings at Outrigger properties on Maui, Kauai and Hawaii island decreased by half.
“We did see some recovery from this after the Oct. 15 pre-travel test was announced; however, it’s still around 50% of the same time last year,” Berges said. “Outrigger is ready to safely welcome both kamaaina and trans-Pacific travelers to all of our island properties. Getting further clarity and consistency on travel regulations for all islands would be helpful, as right now the only stay dates in demand are the December holidays and after the second quarter 2021.”
Bonham and others, who are worried about the health of Hawaii’s economy, want Hawaii’s leaders to keep moving forward on reopening tourism. However, some critics have urged the state and county to pause until they can figure out a more thorough mandatory multitest tourism reopening plan.
Kauai resident Steve O’Neal, who served on a United Nations disaster response team in Myanmar after Cyclone Nargis, has advised leaders not to rush reopening with an “unsafe single pre-flight test protocol.”
He doesn’t think a same-day test at the airport upon arrival makes sense, either.
“It does nothing to catch those infected just prior to travel, or in transit which is the central point of a second test,” O’Neal said in an email. “A second test on the same day as arrival is a non-starter. You’ll be hard pressed to find an expert to tell you anything different. Only a shortened quarantine with an exit test closer to the 7th day has any chance of success.”
Mufi Hannemann, president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association, said the visitor industry hasn’t taken a position on testing, but urged government leaders to make a decision.
“This much confusion three days out won’t allow us to fully maximize travel within the state,” Hannemann said. “We’re ready, and we are still waiting in the dugout when we should be up at bat.”
Pleasant Holidays president and CEO Jack Richards said unresolved questions are affecting current travel and future bookings to Hawaii. Some Hawaii hotels already have sent out notices about a second test even though travel requirements haven’t been finalized by the state or counties, Richards said.
“Put yourself in the position of having to sell Hawaii travel. It’s a few days out, and we still don’t know what is required,” he said. “There’s still a lot of confusion and noise.”
Star-Advertiser reporters Gordon Pang, Dan Nakaso and Tim Hurley contributed to this story.