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Editorial: Set the stage for unrestricted travel

Thanks to rising vaccination rates and a steady hold on low COVID-19 infection counts, Hawaii’s Safe Travels program is undergoing changes that will surely result in more mingling of residents and tourists.

All state restrictions imposed on interisland travel were lifted, effective Tuesday. Also, fully vaccinated travelers returning from the mainland who have received at least one dose in Hawaii can now skip the program’s coronavirus testing requirement, which has proved too cumbersome for many.

This less-complicated travel should be cheered as progress on the path toward bringing back pre-pandemic summer scenes familiar to most residents. At the same time, though, among states, Hawaii’s approach to balancing public health concerns and economic rebound remains among the most cautious.

Hawaii is currently the only state still requiring infection testing for any set of travelers who have been fully vaccinated for COVID-19. And while the trendsetting states of New York and California this week lifted nearly all pandemic restrictions because at least 70% of their adults have received at least one dose, Gov. David Ige has set the bar higher.

All travel restrictions and most other constraints are slated to be lifted here when 70% of the state’s population is fully vaccinated. With about 55% of residents now meeting that mark, according to state data, Hawaii needs to make more strides before capacity limits on businesses and at events, plus social distancing requirements, are further scaled back or eliminated.

Given that the islands continue to be vulnerable to surges that could quickly overwhelm our health care resources, Ige is erring on the side of caution — impinging on some personal freedoms and everyday business operations in favor of public health. While unemployment soared at the height of the pandemic, Hawaii has consistently ranked among states with the nation’s lowest per capita COVID-19 case rates.

There’s no doubt that this approach to combating the virus has saved lives. Moreover, with the recent surfacing of the Delta variant on Oahu, Ige’s higher bar seems justifiable for a short while longer. First detected in India, this variant can spread more easily and cause more severe illness than other virus forms; it was detected in an Oahu resident who was fully vaccinated — underscoring that while shots in arms serve as a highly effective weapon, they are not an impermeable shield.

In the short term, Hawaii must press on in its push to increase the statewide vaccination tally in communities beset by education and access challenges. To that end, it’s necessary that the state’s COVID-19 Community Outreach and Public Health Education team is partnering with organizations like the Filipino Community Center and Papa Ola Lokahi as well as expanding its mobile- units presence and organizing pop-up vaccine clinics in community gathering places.

Also, in the short term, it’s difficult for Hawaii to compete for some travel-related business, such as conventions, when other destinations already have removed testing requirements for all fully vaccinated travelers, along with some masking and social distancing requirements — especially those that apply to professionally organized meetings and incentive travel.

Amid such dynamic shifts, state leaders should be projecting optimism and reassurances that Hawaii’s pre-pandemic business venues will be fully open for business in the foreseeable future.

So far, 15 states — Hawaii, included — have reached the 70% threshold for adults receiving at least one dose of the vaccine, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures, though Hawaii’s own data shows a lower percentage. Unlike other states with obstinately low vaccine rates, Hawaii continues to make progress. To avoid backsliding with a surge in COVID-19 cases, it’s that forward movement that is our best bet for a thriving new normal.

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