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Bill to unify travel rules draws opposition on Kauai

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Hawaii lawmakers are considering a bill that would create a uniform and simplified travel policy for visitors and residents returning to Hawaii or flying between islands. But the measure, supported by the tourism industry and business trade groups, is eliciting opposition on Kauai, where more stringent rules are in place to protect local residents from the COVID-19 pandemic.

House Bill 1286 would exempt anyone entering the state or traveling between the islands from mandatory quarantine requirements if they received a negative test from a state-approved provider within 72 hours of the final leg of their departure. The bill also provides options for people who arrive in the islands without the result of a test if it’s through no fault of their own.

Hawaii’s lack of cohesive rules has caused confusion among travelers and returning residents and harmed Hawaii’s already beleaguered tourism economy, Mufi Hannemann, president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, told lawmakers Tuesday during a hearing on the bill.

“It will bring us together in a comprehensive, coordinated way so that it’s not as confusing,” he said, “so it provides more incentives for people to want to come here.”

Hawaii largely shut down travel in March, requiring a mandatory 14-day quarantine for anyone arriving in the islands. In mid-October the state finally began lifting restrictions under its Safe Travels program, allowing travelers to bypass what is now a 10-day quarantine if they can show proof of a negative COVID-19 test from a state-approved administrator that was taken within 72 hours of departure.

The rules get confusing, however, when traveling between islands. Visitors must take another test unless they are flying to Oahu.

Counties also have been able to make up their own rules. Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami opted out of the Safe Travels Program on Dec. 2 and required anyone traveling to Kauai to quarantine for 10 days with no option to test out. The mayor rejoined the state’s Safe Travels program Jan. 5 but also adopted new requirements for trans-Pacific travelers. They can take a test 72 hours before departing for Kauai, stay in a “resort bubble” for three days and then take another test to get out of quarantine.

Visitors and returning residents who have been on another Hawaiian Island for at least 72 hours can also skip quarantine if they get tested 72 hours before departing for Kauai.

House Bill 1286 has elicited strong emotions on Kauai, where coronavirus cases have remained remarkably low and there has only been one death associated with the virus. The measure has attracted more than 300 pages of testimony, much of it from Kauai residents.

Lee Evslin, a retired doctor and former CEO of Kauai’s Wilcox Hospital, said the variants of the virus are particularly worrisome. State health officials announced last week that two people on Oahu with no travel history had tested positive for the highly contagious B.1.1.7 variant, which first emerged in the United Kingdom.

“What the experts are essentially saying is that we are either in the eye of the storm or we really are in the recovery mode — and we don’t know if we are or not,” he said. “It’s a race, essentially, between the ability to immunize and these variants taking over.”

Evslin, who opposes the bill, said that now isn’t the time to loosen restrictions.

Residents on Kauai provided mixed testimony on the bill, with some praising the mayor for ensuring residents’ safety and others decrying the economic devastation that’s resulted from the loss of tourism.

The bill passed out of a joint hearing before the House Pandemic and Disaster Preparedness Committee and House Labor and Tourism Committee. But it still faces hearings before two more House committees before it can pass over to the Senate for consideration. It will likely face a difficult path for approval, with neighbor island lawmakers already expressing reservations Tuesday.

Rep. Angus McKelvey (D, Lahaina-Kaanapali-Honokohau) voted to pass the bill out of committee but said he had “major concerns.”

Rep. Tina Wildberger (D, South Maui) voted against the bill. She said uniform travel rules aren’t necessarily going to be the magic bullet for tourism, noting that hotel occupancy on all islands is extremely low, not just on Kauai.

“I feel that the counties need to be able to retain their autonomy,” she said.

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