Hawaii leaders want the islands’ tourism industry to survive but are making that objective harder to achieve. The long-delayed Safe Travels pre-travel testing program — with its rules now shifting — has created a measure of chaos that has frustrated businesses depending on visitor spending supporting their bottom line.
Part of the problem is the on-again, off-again plans for relaunching tourism by requiring all arriving passengers to get tested for COVID-19 if they want to be exempt from the state’s 14-day quarantine. That program finally got off the ground on Oct. 15 and made a promising start.
Unfortunately, the plan began to fragment, at least in part due to the skyrocketing infection rates across the mainland. Gov. David Ige decided to allow the individual counties to opt out of the statewide exemption process, which Kauai has now done, since Wednesday. Travelers bound for that island, with few exceptions, cannot get out of the full two weeks of quarantine.
Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami, who pointed to rising COVID-19 counts and his island’s fragile health-care system, said he did so because Ige did not approve the county’s plan for supplemental testing three days after arrival, with quarantine in the interim. The governor agreed that the “exponential” community spread there provided a rational basis for the opt-out decision.
Speaking Tuesday on “Spotlight Hawaii,” the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s webcast, Kawakami said he still hoped the governor might approve his proposed alternative, because the county had secured the tests on its own.
“If the fear is the failure of the program, well, let me fail,” the mayor added.
At this point, it certainly would be a better option to allow some kind of alternative. The shutdown on the Garden Island has led to the inevitable loss of business. Cancellations are up by 50%, scheduled flights are down, and much of that missed revenue will not be recovered.
In addition, Hawaii island this week went full-bore on its own post-arrival testing program, with a rapid-result antigen test upon arrival at the Kona and Hilo airports. Such a compromise might not be as health-tight as what Kawakami proposed — a second test after three days of on-island quarantine — but it shows that adjustments can and should be made. And it would send a better message than what visitors are hearing now: Come back to Hawaii, but don’t expect a welcome mat.
Meanwhile, some encouraging news that came on Wednesday should persuade the governor to make some accommodations in the state policy. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while acknowledging that the 14-day period is optimal for averting community spread of the disease, proposed ways to reduce that isolation time.
If a person is asymptomatic, he or she could end quarantine after 10 days, and only seven days if a subsequent test comes up negative. That certainly suggests an amendment is possible, and Kawakami rightly is continuing discussions about finding a middle path.
Addressing the Star-Advertiser’s editorial board on Thursday, Ige said he also is contemplating ways that visitors could test out of quarantine.
The hope is that the costs of the tests will come down, ensuring that the price of a visit to Hawaii will remain within reach.
Establishing “resort bubbles,” the schemes for allowing visitors to roam free within the confines of a hotel property, may offer another way for those who like a resort experience. But that would exclude the majority, who understandably want the immediate, diverse opportunities to explore the islands’ famous natural attractions.
Public health and economic impacts indeed can be conflicting interests, as Ige says. But a better balance is possible, and leadership needs to find one that causes less upheaval and minimizes confusion for the state’s bedrock industry.