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Legislators’ Maui meeting undergoes pandemic travel backlash

Hawaii has the nation’s lowest coronavirus infection rate per 100,000, but that didn’t stop critics from bashing politicians who are attending an annual conference on Maui hosted by the nonprofit Independent Voter Project.

The four-day event, which includes legislators from California, Texas and Washington, is taking place this week at the Fairmont Kea Lani in Wailea. Critics say the IVP event, which generally includes policy discussions and schmoozing with corporate sponsors, was ill-timed.

It comes just days after California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee issued travel advisories amid another surge in U.S. COVID-19 cases. The advisories issued Friday urged against nonessential out-of-state trips and asked travelers to self-quarantine for 14 days after arriving from another state or country.

In addition to encouraging quarantines, travel advisories recommend limiting interaction to immediate households and keeping travel plans in-state.

The political backlash is a variation of Hawaii’s age-old struggle to overcome the perception that this is a boondoggle destination. Mufi Hannemann, president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging &Tourism Association, called the criticism a “cheap shot,” as attendees were on essential business and Hawaii has the nation’s lowest COVID-19 infection rate as well as the strictest entry protocols.

“The boondoggle perception is an ongoing challenge that we’ve had to face in good times and bad,” Hannemann said. “It’s unfortunate that they would make that criticism at this time. Everyone is struggling to address the pandemic, and the business sector has been among the hardest-hit.”

He said Hawaii’s business travel sector won’t be helped by the negative publicity surrounding the IVP event. The headline on a Fox News Story was “California authorities insist people stay home — meanwhile they’re escaping to lavish getaway in Hawaii.”

IVP Chairman Dan Howle declined to name the attendees but said there were fewer than 20 lawmakers from the three states. The remainder of the guests include legislators’ spouses and other family members, as well as representatives of businesses and trade groups that pay thousands of dollars to gain access to lawmakers who may later be voting on bills affecting their industries.

He said the event is only about a third of its usual size. Organizers booked about 50 rooms and have about 120 people staying at the Fairmont Kea Lani, he told the San Francisco Chronicle.

“Somebody has to be first to say, ‘OK, we’re going to do a group event safely,’” he said, adding that the group didn’t decide to go ahead with the conference until last month, when Hawaii relaxed its travel policy so people could visit the state if they had a negative coronavirus test within 72 hours before arriving.

Hannemann said, “We can have these conferences here that couldn’t take place in other states because we’ve done a great job in keeping the COVID-19 infections down. Across the board, whatever island you chose, Hawaii is the safest bet for a vacation or a business trip.”

On Tuesday, Hawaii had the best COVID infection rate of any state with just 5.9 cases per 100,000, according to a New York Times database. The next-lowest state, Maine, had 13.1 infections per 100,000. North Dakota was the worst with 176.7 cases per 100,000.

Hawaii requires that all trans-Pacific travelers quarantine for 14 days upon arrival unless they participate in a COVID-19 pre-arrival testing program, which started Oct. 15 for domestic travelers, or have obtained another kind of exemption.

The state and county governments have passed such strict COVID-19 containment rules that many businesses are still closed, recently prompting CBS News’ travel editor, Peter Greenberg, to tell travelers to wait until next year to visit Hawaii.

On Monday, Gov. David Ige took another step to make travel to and within Hawaii safer. He signed a proclamation making each hotel responsible for how to deal with guests “who become COVID- 19 positive or have been identified as a close contact of someone who is positive for COVID-19. Hotel operators are required to submit their plan to the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority and publish it on their website.”

Alexis Eaton, spokeswoman for the Fairmont Kea Lani, where the IVP event is taking place, shared a link to the property’s COVID-19 safety protocols, fairmont-kea-lani.com/covid-safety.

“Our top priority remains the safety, care and well-being of our Fairmont Kea Lani ‘ohana. Welcoming, safeguarding and taking care of others is at the very heart of what we do and who we are,” Eaton said in an email. “At this moment, this means keeping our guests and colleagues safe by preventing the spread of COVID-19 — partnering with top experts to implement new standards of safety and enhanced operational protocols and procedures which are among the most stringent in the hospitality industry.”

She added, “We remain vigilant in our adherence to state and county ordinances in respect to travel policies, safety protocol, and group gatherings for our guests as well as our colleagues.”

Hawaii Tourism Authority President and CEO John De Fries said the Fairmont Kea Lani is just one example of the many Hawaii hotels that are ready to receive leisure and group travelers.

De Fries said HTA’s recent focus has been on restarting leisure travel, as most groups that had planned trips to Hawaii this year have postponed to 2021 or 2022. As those dates get closer, De Fries said, it will be important for Hawaii “to put forth an image of being a place to do business.”

“Because Hawaii has such a tropical image in everybody’s mind, it’s tough for the lay public and certainly the media to understand that you can conduct business here,” De Fries said. “Certainly, corporations do it. In this case, members of a legislative committee are doing it. Hawaii has to do a better job of telling that story about why it’s a world-class meetings destination. We have our work cut out for us.”

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The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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