It has begun — a rocky start, but a necessary first step toward a recovery of Hawaii’s economy. The “make it work” moment has come.
On Thursday, the first travelers with the option of escaping the state’s 14-day COVID-19 quarantine arrived, signalling the restart of tourism, the industry that supports so much of commercial activity in the islands. Its virtual shutdown since spring, with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, has rippled through businesses statewide, with grim job losses being the most worrisome result.
So, after months of false starts, it was good to see the wheels start rolling for the pre-travel testing program, in which a passenger clearing a COVID-19 test within 72 hours of arrival earns a waiver from quarantine.
Given all that delay, however, it should have been made clearer what rules were going to apply. Confusion about expectations for tourists heading to one island or another has frustrated those making vacation plans — and has drawn some deserved criticism from various observers of travel markets.
Too late in the game, Gov. David Ige gave options to each of the four counties to forego the waiver altogether or customize the rules. They did so, practically on the eve of the rollout, which added another layer of fog for those making plans — or already en route to the islands.
For example: A second round of rapid testing is being administered for out-of-state arrivals at Kona International Airport. Those with positive results will be referred for more conclusive testing.
Such bumps in the road should be smoothed out promptly, as the testing capacity continues to improve. However, what should not wait is clarity in the messaging by the four counties. At this point, county rule variations should be cleaned up, starting with consistency in masking mandates, statewide.
Visitors should be told, in no uncertain terms, that Hawaii has rules about best practices to stem the spread of COVID-19: keeping physically apart, washing hands and wearing facial coverings over nose and mouth. On Oahu, for example, that means even while sitting on the beach, masks should be worn. At this point, basic standards should be made uniform, in all counties.
It’s the masking that has become a polarizing issue, and that is unfortunate. The simple coverings are what enable people to safely resume activities to a reasonable extent but have come to be seen by some as an affront.
Most kamaaina are accustomed to face coverings, but visitors have their own localized habits and need to be told, gently but firmly, that masks are required in most of Hawaii’s shared spaces. It needs to be spelled out prominently, in marketing materials and outreach efforts, so it can’t be missed.
That’s not happening yet. On one state travel advisory posted online (hawaiicovid19.com/travel/ getting-to-hawaii), a travel “quick reference chart” is linked that spells out the process. At the very bottom, in tiny type, appear the words, “Socially distance, wear masks covering nose and mouth.”
Suffice it to say, that should be right on top, bright and bold.
Many residents are anxious about the arrival of more people, understandably, because with increased activity, transmission tends to increase. But the truth is that safety is more the product of safe practices than of visitor counts.
John De Fries, the newly installed president and CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, acknowledged that the pre-travel testing program presents a “calculated risk.”
Over time — but not too much time, please — that calculation should be sharpened, getting the risk-rewards ratio in the proper balance for the health of Hawaii’s people and its economy.