A new 14-day quarantine that starts today for inbound travelers awaiting results of their COVID-19 tests received pushback Monday from the state House Select Committee COVID- 19 Economic and Financial Preparedness, with several members saying the quarantine could hurt Hawaii’s economy just as it’s showing encouraging signs.
The policy is the result of concerns from all four county mayors “about anyone coming in that’s positive” and recommendations from the state Department of Health about the department’s ability to deal with passengers who cannot prove they are negative for COVID-19, Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, incident commander of Hawaii’s response to the pandemic, told the committee.
Once passengers arrive, most test results come back within 72 hours, Hara said. If the tests are conducted within Hawaii, “over 98 or 99%” of the time, “the results get in within 24 hours.”
But the surge of cases on the mainland also means that “CVS announced that they can no longer guarantee test results for Hawaii travel,” Hara said.
Mufi Hannemann, chief executive officer and president of the Hawaii Lodging &Tourism Association, said he hopes to meet with Gov. David Ige to “tweak” the rule that Ige and Lt. Gov. Josh Green announced Thursday and is scheduled to go into effect today.
The quarantine would apply to passengers “who did everything right” by booking a verifiable reservation and got tested at least 72 hours in advance before boarding an inbound flight, Hannemann said.
But, for reasons not their fault, the passengers did not receive their test results before landing, Hannemann said.
“We have grave concerns,” Hannemann said.
If no changes are made to the 14-day quarantine, he said, “it will not result in some reduction. It will result in a great reduction. … We are very concerned across the board about what this could mean.”
The visitor industry is already seeing canceled trips, and Hannemann worries that the possibility of spending an entire Hawaii vacation in quarantine — even if a passenger followed all of the other requirements — means “they’re going to say — and are saying — ‘We’re going to go elsewhere.’ … We just want to see some tweaks to make it more palatable for visitors to come here.”
Committee member Dr. Mark Mugiishi, president and CEO of HMSA, wondered why passengers without test results can’t receive a so-called “rapid test” immediately at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport and then get released from quarantine once they test negative.
“It’s a small number,” Mugiishi said.
Committee member Ray Vara, president and CEO of Hawaii Pacific Health, earlier said Monday that the number of affected passengers was only 44, or about one each day since Hawaii’s pre-test program went into effect Oct. 15.
But 44 arriving passengers is the number of people who arrived with no test results and then ended up testing positive for COVID-19.
The actual estimate of people who have been arriving without knowing whether they are positive or negative is more than 20,000 — or 6% of all passengers who have arrived from Oct. 15 through Thursday, Ige and Green said during last week’s announcement.
The 14-day quarantine threatens to slow encouraging signs of a possible economic rebound and comes in addition to a surge of cases on the mainland, which also threatens to reduce testing opportunities for people trying to get tested before flying to Hawaii.
Committee members repeatedly said public safety comes first but were notably concerned about the possibility of slowing the economy further.
Peter Ho — co-chairman of the committee and chairman, president and CEO of Bank of Hawaii — described the balance between slowing the spread of COVID-19 and bringing back workers and the economy as, “We’re trying to thread the needle here.”
Committee member Carl Bonham, executive director of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization, earlier told the committee that Hawaii’s economy was “turning up.”
Compared with September, the islands saw nearly 30,000 people join the job market in October. Unemployment fell to 14.3% from 15.1%, he said.
“The economic pulse is continuing to point up, Bonham said. “It really is a good indication of how important the pre-travel testing program is and the reopening to tourism and what that can do … in getting people back to work.”
Hawaii had been averaging about 5,000 arriving passengers per day, but the number more than doubled last week on the eve of Thanksgiving.
After Thanksgiving, Bonham estimates, the number of daily passenger arrivals then will drop “even below 5,000” for a variety of reasons, including the surge of cases on the mainland and the uncertainty of the mandatory 14-day quarantine for those who arrive with no test results.
The overall result, Bonham said, is likely to be “reduced mainland travelers.”