Traveler screenings under Safe Travels Hawaii, the state’s COVID-19 testing entry program, passed the 2 million mark this week as March momentum fueled the visitor industry.
The state as of Wednesday had screened 2,007,136 travelers under Safe Travels, which started Oct. 15. The milestone comes as Hawaii marks one year since Gov. David Ige issued the state’s first shelter-in-place order in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Certainly, the first six months of Hawaii Safe Travels hasn’t even come close to restoring the state’s tourism-dependent economy, which as of February was still well below pre-pandemic times.
The Hawaii Tourism Authority reported Thursday that there were 90,776 visitors in Hawaii on any given day in February 2021, compared with 250,052 visitors per day in February 2020. HTA reported the average daily census during the first two months of 2021 decreased to 85,519 visitors, compared with 260,059 visitors per day.
Still, Lt. Gov. Josh Green said hitting 2 million traveler screenings is an important step toward Hawaii’s overall recovery.
“For every 50 travelers that come to Hawaii, we reboot one full-time job for a year. So 2 million travelers meant 40,000 jobs were restored,” Green said.
Local 5 President Gemma Weinstein was hopeful Thursday during a state of the union address that the union would turn the corner on a tough 2020.
“It’s been a year, you guys, since the pandemic began. One year since 9,000 Local 5 members actually were furloughed and 130,000 workers in Hawaii were furloughed,” Weinstein said. “One year that we live in unemployment worrying about the future, worrying about the pandemic.”
Weinstein said that “2021 is the year to get workers back to work safely.”
To do that, Weinstein said, union workers must fight to keep management from performing union jobs and companies from eliminating labor-intensive services such as daily cleaning.
An accelerated tourism recovery also might further the cause.
It took the state roughly 93 days to break the 1 million screenings benchmark after reopening Hawaii travel Oct. 15. By Jan. 15 the state had screened 1,009,252 travelers, or an average of 10,852 travelers a day.
Since then Safe Travels has screened another 997,884 travelers, with as many as 476,176, or almost 48%, in March alone. The daily screening average for the first 24 days of March is a robust 19,840 travelers.
More growth is expected, especially once Kauai is fully returned to Safe Travels. Kauai pulled out of Safe Travels on Dec. 5 for trans- Pacific and interisland travelers. On Jan. 5 Kauai rejoined Safe Travels for interisland travelers, but it won’t rejoin the program for trans-Pacific travelers until April 5.
Easing Hawaii’s travel restrictions is expected to increase travel demand to the state, which already has experienced incredible tourism strengthening in March — a popular spring break travel period. Huge progress in COVID-19 vaccine rollouts across the U.S. also appears to have contributed to the gains.
“The Governor and Mayors are considering my proposal to remove interisland travel restrictions effective April 15,” Green said. “It’s time to reunite Hawaii families statewide and it is necessary for many of our small businesses to be able to travel interisland without the added cost.”
Green also hopes to end testing and travel quarantine requirements for fully vaccinated trans-Pacific travelers soon.
Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, who spoke during an HTA board meeting Thursday, said leaders must work together to determine the right time to lift interisland travel restrictions.
“We are trying to convince the mayors and the governor that the infection rates, the rate of hospitalizations and the death rates have gone down to a level where we believe we can get rid of that interisland travel quarantine restriction and the pre-testing requirement,” Hara said.
Hara said he’s concerned about recent reports of underground gatherings, sometimes as large as 1,000 attendees, where people aren’t wearing masks and socially distancing.
“This could lead to big super-spreader events, and that’s one of my fears,” he said. “The other is a reluctance to get vaccinated. It seems just about 40% to 50% of the population are willing to get vaccinated.”
Hara said the state needs about 75% to 80% of the community vaccinated to get to herd immunity, which must be done soon to keep COVID-19 variants from gaining a foothold and making vaccines irrelevant.
Hara said another challenge in easing travel restrictions is that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is still recommending that people don’t travel for leisure.
Hara said he expects decision makers will feel more comfortable about lifting interisland travel restrictions, “if we can get Maui down to single digits.”
Once interisland travel restrictions have been lifted, Hara said, the next logical step is to ease travel restrictions for fully vaccinated U.S. trans-Pacific travelers and then fully vaccinated international trans-Pacific travelers.
“I’m thinking somewhere about the May-June time frame because that’s when we anticipate to be completed with 1A though 1C (vaccinations) and going into Phase 2,” he said.
Once Hawaii reaches herd immunity, Hara said, the state could choose to dispense with Safe Travels.
“If we can get the hospitalization rate down to near zero and, more importantly, the deaths down to near zero, then we should just terminate the entire Hawaii Safe Travels program because then COVID-19 would be like any other cold or flu,” he said.