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Editorial: Rocky Safe Travels impeding recovery

After opting out of Safe Travels Hawaii in early December, Kauai rejoined the state’s program on Tuesday, thereby allowing interisland travelers who test negative for COVID-19 to bypass a mandatory 10-day quarantine. While that’s a welcome, straightforward move toward boosting in-state travel, Kauai’s launch of its own entry program for trans-Pacific travelers is less so.

Under the new program, there are two options for out-of-state travelers arriving on Kauai to avoid a 10-day quarantine. One is to first go to another Hawaiian island as a Safe Travels program participant and spend at least 72 hours there before traveling to Kauai. The other involves securing a negative COVID test result before arriving on Kauai, then staying in a “resort bubble” for at least three days.

So far, Kauai County has designated six properties as bubbles, where arrivals can use swimming pools and roam resort grounds, but may not leave until, after three days, they clear a second COVID test. It’s concerning that both options add costs and time commitment to Hawaii’s overall screening framework, which has already touched off considerable confusion among travelers attempting to navigate it.

An unwelcome upshot is the likelihood of what Keith Vieira, of KV &Associates, Hospitality Consulting, calls “booking malaise” persisting statewide — unless trans-Pacific traveler screening is simplified. Vieira rightly pointed out that due to “worry that the rules are going to keep changing,” many would-be visitors are delaying or canceling trips to tourism-dependent Hawaii.

Given the moving-target nature of COVID’s spread, entry requirements for any tourist destination must be somewhat flexible as the infection situation on the ground can change.

Prior to the mid-October start of Safe Travels, Kauai had a total of 61 cases. In the six-week period that followed, it racked up an additional 70 cases — 57 of them travel-related. So the impulse to lean hard on public-health protections is understandable.

However, while Kauai has the lowest population among our four counties, it does not stand alone in fending off the virus threat. Its Wilcox Memorial Hospital has nine ICU beds, but officials have said it could flex up to 20, if needed — and backup support could be tapped from other Hawaii Pacific Health hospitals, including Kapiolani, Pali Momi and Straub.

So far, the state’s pre-arrival testing program, which aims to balance welcoming back tourists with mitigating risk of virus spread, has delivered some slow-placed economic recovery gains. But a growing list of program modifications — including Kauai’s December opt-out and now contorted reopening options — likely means trans-Pacific travel here will be increasingly discouraged.

It’s apparent that the opt-out, which resulted in a monthlong halt to tourism on the Garden Isle, did some damage in stalling previous strides toward recovery of Kauai’s visitor industry, which supports one-third of the island’s economy.

In 2019, there were roughly 27,700 visitors on Kauai on any given day, according to state figures. Under the Safe Travels pre-test program, Kauai had averaged 600 to 700 visitors per day. That count dropped to an average of just 30 after the county pulled out of the state program.

Kauai now faces the possibility of an even steeper climb to recovery, in part, because one of its designated bubbles, Kauai Marriott Resort in Lihue, plans to cease operations in early March, resulting in potential permanent layoffs for 457 employees. It’s unclear whether the hotel’s new Massachusetts-based owner will retain any current employees.

Such a huge loss of jobs would dig the economic hole ever deeper, making recovery increasingly difficult. It’s a black hole that cannot be allowed to widen and suck recovery out of the other islands. Gov. David Ige and county mayors need to work as one so Safe Travels delivers a more unified approach to visitor screening.

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