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Editorial: Simplify, clarify Safe Travels rules

The Safe Travels Hawaii program was launched in mid-October as a means to reopen domestic trans-Pacific travel that had flatlined months earlier when Gov. David Ige imposed a mandatory 14-day quarantine on out-of-state arrivals.

Key to economic recovery in our tourism-dependent state, the program is tasked with managing two must-do directives: mitigating risk of virus spread and welcoming back tourists. Given the twists and turns involved in balancing the two, the state must continue to refine the program, but as simply as possible.

To that end, Mayor Kirk Caldwell last week pitched a plan that offers up a few viable fixes for shoring up clear weaknesses.

One proposal comes in response to Ige’s recent too-rigid revision in the program. That change, which took effect a week ago, requires trans-Pacific travelers seeking to bypass quarantine to have their negative 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 two weeks or the length of stay, whichever is shorter.

Instead of quarantine, Caldwell suggests, direct those who arrive with a delayed or lost test result, or who unknowingly got results outside the state’s “trusted testing and travel partners,” to test upon arrival at the city’s airport mobile testing laboratory. With results ready in three to six hours, this seems to be a reasonable option for those trying to comply with our pre-travel recommendations.

Under another proposal, Caldwell addresses the questionable, state-granted exemptions for certain travelers from Safe Travels pre-arrival screening: transit passengers, airline crew, military, federal government employees and others.

Currently, about 20% of all arrivals fall into this waived bracket, leaving Hawaii’s safety-net strategy for avoiding virus spread with a gaping hole. While the state recently began requiring such travelers to take a post-arrival test, Caldwell and others are rightly calling for a pre-arrival test. The counties should not foot the bill; in many cases, the traveler’s health insurance or employer would likely cover costs.

Constitutionally, states cannot prohibit residents of another state from entering, but they can require quarantines or statements of purpose amid a pandemic. Currently, roughly 12% of all arrivals are turning up without even attempting to navigate Hawaii’s pre-travel testing requirements, thereby landing them in mandatory quarantine.

State numbers show that since Safe Travels started, upwards of 400,000 travelers have touched down in the islands, with more than 45,000 people directed to self-quarantine. Enforcing quarantine for those numbers places a heavy — and currently unsustainable — burden on county and state law enforcement departments.

In an effort to address this, Caldwell proposed a third prong: offering nontested, quarantine-bound travelers the opportunity to take a COVID test upon arrival and download the city’s digital contact tracing app, then take a second test four days later, with the traveler picking up all costs.

If both tests are negative, the traveler would be sprung from quarantine. Such an approach might serve as a pragmatic fix for enforcement — but critics rightly counter that it could quickly prompt many to forgo pre-travel testing, resulting in more incoming travelers with uncertain infection status, and possibly create a new pocket of test-processing backlog.

While the third prong seems problematic and premature at this time, Ige should update Safe Travels for Oahu with the other two. Both serve Hawaii’s need to forge forward with economic recovery while balancing public health.

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