HONOLULU (AP) — Despite increasing coronavirus cases across the U.S., Hawaii officials hope to reboot tourism next week by loosening months of economically crippling pandemic restrictions, including a mandatory 14-day quarantine for all arriving travelers.
The plan, which was postponed after the virus surged in the summer, will allow Hawaii-bound travelers who provide negative virus test results within 72 hours of arrival to sidestep two weeks of quarantine.
But the Oct. 15 launch of the pretravel testing program is causing concern for some who say gaps in the plan could further endanger a community still reeling from summer infection rates that spiked to 10 percent after local restrictions eased.
“In a perfect world, we wouldn’t reopen until we had a vaccine,” said John De Fries, president and CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
State Sen. Glenn Wakai, chair of the Committee on Economic Development, Tourism and Technology, said one problem is that the tests are not mandatory for all. Travelers can still choose to not get tested and instead quarantine for two weeks upon arrival, which means those with a negative test could get infected on the plane.
“They’re going to come here with this false sense of belief that, ‘Hey, I got tested, Hawaii, I’m clean. Here’s my paperwork. Let me enjoy my Hawaiian vacation,’ not knowing that the person in seat B on a five-hour flight gave them the coronavirus,” Wakai said.
Hawaii has lived under quarantine laws for months, but hundreds — at times thousands — of people have arrived daily since the pandemic started. Some have flouted safety measures, leading to arrests and fines for the scofflaws.
Before the pandemic, the state received about 30,000 visitors a day.
If the islands face another coronavirus surge because of a hasty return to tourism, another lockdown could spell economic disaster, Wakai said.
But others view the pretravel testing plan as the best way to add a layer of protection while kick-starting the economy. Hawaii has had one the nation’s highest unemployment rates since the start of the pandemic, which ground to a halt nearly all vacation-related activity.
Hawaii Lt. Gov. Josh Green, who has spearheaded the testing program, acknowledged the risks but said the plan will give the islands a much-needed chance for economic recovery.
“It’s important that people know we welcome them as long as they’ve gotten their test,” Green said, adding that wearing a mask in public is still Hawaii law.
Green, an emergency room doctor who recently recovered from COVID-19, said calls for testing at Hawaii’s airports don’t take into account capacity or cost. Even if the state could test all visitors, people wouldn’t get their results right away, he added.
“If we were to test everybody that came, we would have to have 8,000 tests per day,” Green said, estimating the number of visitors he thinks will travel to Hawaii at the program’s start. The state currently has about 4,000 tests available each day for residents and visitors.
As part of the plan, Hawaii is partnering with several U.S. mainland pharmacies and airlines for testing. Travelers will load their information onto a state website and mobile app that officials will use to track incoming passengers.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, who spoke with Green in a livestream video call Oct. 7, said no matter what, some COVID positive vacationers will get into the state.
“The reality is, no matter what you do, there are going to be infected people who slip through the cracks. It’s inevitable,” Fauci said.
Fauci said that adding some kind of secondary screening would help.
“You’re not going to get everybody, but statistically, you’re going to dramatically diminish the likelihood that an infected person enters,” he said.
The blow to tourism has taken a toll on Hawaii residents who depend on the sector to survive. Many businesses have closed. Hotels have shuttered or operate under limited capacity. Bars remain closed and restaurants struggle with take-out only or a cap on the number of guests they can serve. The October measure could bring back paychecks for many workers.
“In a perfect world, we wouldn’t reopen until we had a vaccine,” said John De Fries, president and CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority. However, waiting that long, he said, “would take us out.”