Hawaii’s tourism reopening Thursday sent more than 10,000 passengers through statewide airports, straining the system, especially on Hawaii island, where travelers must take two COVID-19 tests to get out of quarantine.
Travelers who provide written confirmation from a state-approved COVID-19 testing partner of a negative result from a test administered within 72 hours of the final leg of departure are now allowed to bypass the quarantine. However, a post-arrival test is required for visitors to Hawaii island, who can take a free rapid test at the airport.
Hawaii island Mayor Harry Kim said Friday the county administered a post-arrival test to approximately 1,020 passengers — all of the ones who came in as part of the state’s pre-arrival testing program. However, Kim said testing got backed up at Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport, and late in the day, passengers who were awaiting test results at the airport were allowed to leave before finding out whether they were virus-free.
Kim said the post-arrival antigen test, which is paid for by the county, identified only one arriving passenger as having COVID-19. Luckily, he said, that passenger wasn’t part of the group that was allowed to leave the airport after 8 p.m. to make more room for officials to process more incoming flights.
“There’s no doubt yesterday was a very bad experience,” Kim said. “Every island was caught off guard by the number of people who came in — not only by the number (of passengers), but by the airlines switching the number of flights and their schedules. Flights were coming in belly-to-belly.”
Kim said the rush of arrivals meant that some passengers waited three or four hours before the field commander requested the authority to let them leave the airport. He said passengers were told that if they tested positive for COVID-19, the county would contact them to make arrangements to take a PCR nasal swab test.
“We were fortunate in the sense that all of them were negative and we didn’t have to trace for a PCR test,” Kim said. “But it was a real mess. I can’t deny that in any stretch of the imagination.”
In the past, Kim has been critical of the Hawaii Safe Travels application, which collects traveler information needed to enforce public safety measures related to the coronavirus. However, he said the state has made improvements and that it worked across the counties Thursday.
Kim said Thursday’s main problem was the sheer volume of travelers. That’s part of the reason Hawaii island still isn’t allowing interisland travelers to bypass a quarantine that extends through Nov. 30. There isn’t an interisland quarantine for travel to Oahu, and Kauai and Maui allow travelers to bypass their interisland quarantines under the same rules as the state’s pre- arrival testing program.
Mayor Michael Victorino announced Friday that Maui County residents traveling for same-day or overnight medical purposes also will be exempt from quarantine and will not need to take a pre-departure test for COVID-19.
Gov. David Ige said Friday that he was expecting Kim would submit an interisland travel plan to him later that day and that officials would work through the proposal over the weekend.
After meeting with Kim and other county mayors Friday, Ige said he plans to ask the airlines to try to stagger incoming flights so that they don’t all arrive at once.
“In spite of the fact that we had thousands more (visitors) than we expected, we thought the (state’s) processing at the airport went well,” Ige said. “We were prepared. We had physical distancing markers, and we had adequate space to work through to keep the passenger flow. And we (worked) through the issues that came up upon arrival. So overall, I thought it went well for the first day.”
On any given day prior to COVID-19, an average of 29,000 passengers arrived in Hawaii. Arrivals dropped significantly during the quarantine, contributing to a nearly 70% year-to-date reduction in visitor arrivals through August.
The Office of Enterprise Technology Services, which is in charge of the Safe Travels Hawaii data collection system, estimated late Friday that 10,120 trans-Pacific and interisland passengers went through the system Friday. Of those, 6,076, or 60%, cleared the quarantine. Another 1,401, or 14%, went into quarantine because they were awaiting test results or had opted out of the pre-travel testing program.
The office could not immediately explain why its data did not account for the clearance or quarantine status of approximately 2,643 passengers.
Angela Keen, co-founder of Hawaii Quarantine Kapu Breakers, said the volunteer action group, formed to assist officials in catching quarantine breakers, is concerned that so far the pre-arrival testing program hasn’t lightened the load.
“We have even more potential quarantine breakers to monitor than before. The first day of Hawaii’s tourism reopening brought 1,401 or more people that are not exempt from the quarantine and must be monitored and tracked,” Keen said. “Before the program we’d have an average of 800 or so per day that were coming in that had to be quarantined.”
Keen said she hopes the state will act on recommendations made by state Auditor Les Kondo in a scathing review of the quarantine program released Thursday. Keen said she supports the review’s recommendation to set up monitored lodging facilities to assist officials in checking on travelers who must quarantine.
Kondo’s team said they found “an overall lack of coordinated planning and communication among the state and county agencies involved” in the state’s quarantine program.
“Compliance and enforcement have been left to the counties, which are heavily reliant on the honor system or tips from community members and hotel staff,” the review said. “Safe Travels’ automated compliance check-ins provide minimal assurance that visitors and returning residents are in their designated quarantine locations.”
Ige said Friday that all of the counties are now on a common Safe Travels Hawaii system and that travelers who were able to successfully load their information were able to get through their airport entry processing in minutes. Ige said the state’s chief information officer, Doug Murdock, was working through reports that some travelers had problems uploading their tests.
Ige said improvements already have been made to the system that would allow any traveler with a smartphone to show their quarantine status to law enforcement or other screeners.
“No other state is doing what we are doing when it comes to quarantine enforcement,” Ige said.
Kondo’s team also was concerned that come Jan. 1 the state Department of Transportation’s Airports Division will hand over the program to the state Department of Health, “which has had little to no involvement in planning or operations.”
“In addition, CARES Act moneys, which funded the lion’s share of the program’s development, must be spent before the end of 2020,” the review said.
Meanwhile, the Visitor Aloha Society of Hawaii’s COVID-19 Flight Assistance program is slated to run out of funds at the end of October. The program, which began April 6, assists visitors who don’t have the resources to follow the state’s mandatory 14-day quarantine for out-of-state passengers. It was initially funded by a grant from the Hawaii Tourism Authority. After HTA funds were depleted, VASH tapped into its victim assistance fund, which is normally used to help tourists who are crime victims or experience other misfortune.
Ige said, “We are very much aware that all of the counties and the state did receive CARES Act funds, and we will see some reduction of resources, but I do think all of the counties and the state realize that enforcement of the quarantine is an important part of managing the virus.”