Gov. David Ige said he’s cautious about loosening air travel restrictions for people who have received the COVID-19 vaccine, noting that the science is still unclear as to whether the vaccine hampers transmission of the virus.
“Until the science (tells) us that those who are vaccinated cannot carry the virus and, I think most important, do not transmit it to other people, I think it would be irresponsible to say that those vaccinated can travel about freely,” he told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Spotlight Hawaii on Monday.
Ige’s comments contradict his lieutenant governor, Josh Green, who said last week that changes could be in store for Hawaii’s Safe Travels program for people who can show they’ve been vaccinated. The program requires visitors and returning residents to Hawaii to receive a COVID-19 test before arriving in the islands in order to avoid a mandatory 10-day quarantine. Oahu residents are also required to get a COVID-19 test before traveling to other islands if they want to avoid the quarantine.
Last week two Oahu residents with no recent travel history tested positive for the B.1.1.7 variant, amplifying concerns about loosening travel and other restrictions, said Ige. The variant, which first emerged in the United Kingdom, is thought to be much more transmissible.
Still, Hawaii’s case numbers have been declining, signaling hope that restrictions on businesses and gatherings could soon be eased. The state’s seven-day average was 75 cases as of Monday. Hawaii is also vaccinating about 30,000 to 40,000 people a week. The state has the capacity to vaccinate more than double that, said Ige, but is hampered by the availability of the vaccine, which Ige himself still hasn’t received. The governor said he expects to be vaccinated in the next couple of weeks.
While Hawaii’s economy continues to struggle, Ige said he’s hopeful that a proposed federal aid package could help plug the state’s budget holes and provide added relief to residents. The state’s budget deficit is estimated at $1.4 billion to $1.8 billion out of an overall $15.4 billion operating budget.
President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package includes about $350 billion to help state and local governments bridge budget shortfalls.
“I know that the devil’s in the details and we have to see what the specific legislation provides, but it certainly sounds like there would be a significant increase to the amount of funds made available and, most importantly, that they would provide a lot more flexibility than they did in the first package.”
Biden’s package also includes funds to accelerate vaccine deployment and reopen schools, increased unemployment benefits and $1,400 direct payments to individuals whose income is below a certain threshold. It’s not yet clear what those income restrictions will be, but Democrats were considering income limits of $50,000 for individuals and $100,000 for married couples.
Ige said that the new round of federal stimulus funding might allow the state to redeploy its restaurant card program. Last year the state sent out $500 restaurant debit cards to more than 148,000 residents receiving unemployment benefits. The cards helped unemployed residents eat, while aiding local restaurants reeling from the pandemic.
Ige said the federal aid might also provide additional relief to small businesses, including assistance with commercial leases.