Starting Tuesday, under a too-rigid revision in the Safe Travels Hawaii program, trans-Pacific travelers seeking to bypass quarantine must have their COVID-19 test results in hand upon arrival. If results are not available before boarding the final leg of the trip, the traveler must quarantine for 14 days or the length of stay, whichever is shorter.
Under the program’s initial rules, in place since mid-October, arriving travelers still awaiting results had been directed to self-quarantine until their late-arriving negative test result could be verified. This was a more reasonable directive. Given that the test must be taken within 72 hours of the final leg, not every itinerary from the U.S. mainland will be glitch-free.
The unwelcome upshot of the revision is that we’ll likely see fewer trans-Pacific travelers. Some won’t want to book a vacation and jump through pretesting hoops, if uncertainty looms over whether a test result will turn up in time to avoid getting boxed into a mandatory two-week quarantine.
Addressing the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s board on Thursday, its new CEO, John De Fries said: “This has been brought about by the number of people who have arrived with no test uploaded, test results pending. That segment of traveler has caused a tremendous amount of workload and a bottleneck in the system.”
If that’s the case, the state should be scrambling to fix — and improve — the system that’s helping to restart Hawaii’s long-stalled tourism industry, rather than simply scrapping a clunky component at the expense of travelers. Safe Travels now has 28 “trusted testing and travel partners.” Given stricter demand for the three-day turnaround, it should seek out more partners.
Also, at Oahu’s Daniel K. Inouye International Airport, it seems possible that a recently launched mobile testing laboratory could serve as a post-arrival testing option and be tasked with helping to break up the bottleneck. The lab has a capacity to crank through 10,000 COVID-19 diagnostic tests in a day, with a turnaround time of three to six hours, from registration to test results. For pending-test arrivals, instead of being stuck in quarantine, this might provide an alternative.
Lt. Gov. Josh Green said last week that roughly 6% of people coming into Hawaii as part of the Safe Travels program fall into this bottleneck bracket. In some cases, travelers have waited four days or more for a manual review of pending tests. During one low point, more than 3,700 such travelers were waiting for the state’s OK to clear quarantine.
Green said the numbers are much better now but still a concern. What’s more concerning, though, is the state’s dubious response to the challenge of conducting efficient screening of a gradually increasing count of arrivals.
In a news release announcing the program’s revision, Gov. David Ige described it as a “safety precaution” due to the alarming increase in COVID-19 cases on the mainland and elsewhere. He also noted that recent agreements with Japan and Canada will require those sets of international travelers to follow the same pre-arrival testing program rules.
While the ongoing virus surges are worrisome, Hawaii’s data is showing that it’s local community spread — not visitors — that are largely responsible for infection rate upticks.
With continued strict adherence to mask-wearing, physical-distancing and other protective directives — absolute musts for both visitors and residents — Ige and others should rethink this harsh move to tighten up the Safe Travels program.
Hawaiian Airlines has rightly pointed out that some leeway should be maintained. “We continue to believe there should be consideration shown for those travelers who do the right thing and — by no fault of their own — do not receive their test results in time,” the airline said in a statement.
Indeed, in the absence of fair-minded flexibility, Hawaii’s reputation as a welcoming destination could soon ring hollow.