comscore Editorial: Resurgent virus may stall recovery | Honolulu Star-Advertiser
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Editorial: Resurgent virus may stall recovery

Economic recovery prospects look encouraging, according to quick takes from visitor industry leaders, but it’s still not a sure thing.

On the bright side, Hawaii’s low rate of COVID-19 infection is a huge asset. It positions the state as a safe haven for travelers longing for a reprieve from the pandemic.

Current tourism trends show signs that the perception is bearing fruit. Industry executives have reported a rebound in Hawaii bookings and travel. According to one estimate, that demand is up by 30% over the past two weeks.

Hawaii got its share of spring-break ventures. Hawaii Safe Travels, the pre-travel testing program, on Saturday reported screening 28,424 travelers, the most since the coronavirus compelled a shutdown of tourism a year ago. It’s well short of pre-pandemic levels, of course, but momentum seems to be building.

The down side? The rebound could stall out unless the COVID-19 community spread is kept in check — and the recent uptick in case counts is concerning.

With the more infectious variants circulating, a new spike in cases is possible, especially if the relaxation of restrictions leads many to let down their guard. Saturday’s anti-masking protest by the Aloha Freedom Coalition shows a persistent level of impatience among some residents.

And the tourists themselves, many of whom do not adhere to Hawaii’s mask-wearing mandate for public spaces, could present a hurdle to overcome. Some are unaccustomed to masking in outdoor settings, which can become transmission sites if they become crowded. Continued messaging about the need for precautions, and firm enforcement, are essential.

There’s reason for hope that past infection surges may not recur, if the state’s vaccination program can accelerate its steady pace. The more residents get their shots, the sooner Hawaii approaches the estimated 70% level that produces “herd immunity” and enhanced safety for all.

However, there’s still a need to simplify the process of planning a Hawaii trip. One approach would be to consolidate the interisland travel regulations into a consistent statewide policy — with no county opt-out — and a bill to accomplish that continues to move through the Legislature.

Although the intent to make island visits less confusing and cumbersome for visitors is rational, the fluid nature of the pandemic is not ideally regulated through statutes, which face lawmaking hurdles. Gov. David Ige’s emergency orders have limitations, but they do offer a measure of flexibility the pandemic environment demands.

Another tantalizing concept, “vaccine passports” that ease travel for fully vaccinated visitors, is being explored, Ige said Wednesday on the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s “Spotlight Hawaii” webcast. The governor added that recent increases in case counts and in socialization generally mean that a change in Safe Travels must wait a bit longer.

The facts, including the developing science on vaccine protection from community spread of COVID-19, seem to support that position. But once there is fuller understanding of risks, reducing the barriers to travel will be critical to economic recovery.

As visitor arrivals continue to trend upward, restoring tourism should be done with an eye to making it sustainable, managing access to the islands’ precious natural resources.

A Hawaii Tourism Authority survey issued in November indicated some resident hesitancy toward reopening tourism. That anxiety surely has subsided somewhat with the advent of vaccines, but public worries about the issue bear watching.

The imperative to recover more of its jobs lost in the pandemic is paramount — but, to borrow a slogan from a past campaign, Hawaii also should feel driven to build it back better.

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