From the start of the coronavirus pandemic, when the lives of people worldwide were turned upside-down, the approach to recovery has followed a course based on a consistent health policy.
First, the general hygiene and crowd-avoidance protocols were put in place to tamp down infections, which meant most ordinary routines and businesses were initially suppressed. And then, as health metrics improved, activities have been restored, step by step, based on recommendations of infectious-disease experts. It’s been a bumpy road — even the experts were learning about this novel virus as they went — but that’s been the pathway Hawaii has followed.
Now another important step is being taken to remove more barriers from interisland travel. As more residents gain vaccine immunity, they can hope that this initial phase will progress smoothly and swiftly toward freer trans-Pacific travel as well.
Travel became possible, if complicated, with the launch of the Safe Travels pre-flight testing program last fall.
This step has allowed a gradual reboot of the tourism-centered economy, but the pre-travel testing requirements have added hurdles to once-simple intrastate trips. Naturally, everyone wants the return of carefree visits to relatives on other islands, or just casual island-hopping, a pleasure of island life.
The arrival of vaccines has added another protective tool to the nation’s public-health arsenal, in addition to ongoing options for testing. And so it was welcome news, coming this week from Gov. David Ige, that this tool will simplify interisland traveling for those who are fully vaccinated.
Ige on Tuesday announced the kick-off for a vaccine exemption program, with signups beginning May 7 for travel dates May 11 or later. Hawaii residents who are two weeks beyond the date of their final vaccine shot will be able to upload data from the official vaccine card they received, and an image of the card, to the state web portal.
This will save them the trouble and expense of getting a negative test for COVID-19 that’s now required before flight, in lieu of 10-day quarantine upon arrival. Those tests still will be accepted as clearances for travel from those who do not get vaccinated, whether by choice or because vaccines are not approved for their age group. For families’ children under 16, the testing requirement would remain.
The reaction to the program has been largely positive, though there’s criticism on the spectrum as well. Some, including advocates for the visitor industry, want a quicker timetable for the expansion of vaccine-card clearance for inbound travel from the mainland.
And some who are hesitant about — or outright opposed to — taking a vaccine assert that this is pushing the vaccination agenda unfairly for those who see it as an abridgement of personal freedom.
State officials need to continue addressing those complaints emphatically: The criteria for opening travel are based not on ramping up tourism, or on matters of “fairness” to any particular business or interest group. They are based on maintaining public health and the stability of Hawaii’s health-care networks.
Lt. Gov. Josh Green said in an interview Wednesday that he hopes accepting out-of-state vaccination credentials can begin six to eight weeks after the May 11 launch. If the delay ensures that the system is workable — and that the state won’t have to rescind its exemptions because of unreadiness — that would be a worthy investment of time.
The ultimate goal is to settle on a plan that will enable travel for those who do their part, whether through vaccination or testing, for the protection of a healthy community. That is everyone’s collective responsibility.