Hawaii’s Big Island tourism got a boost from Gov. David Ige. On September 23, Ige signed a new emergency proclamation that extends Hawaii’s COVID-19 emergency period through the end of October and officially authorizes a pre-arrivals testing program that would ease travel restrictions for some travelers.
The state announced that a pre-travel testing program will launch on Oct. 15. This will hopefully encourage more travelers to plan trips to Hawaii while allowing the state to do what they need to do to keep residents safe.
The new order says that “travelers who, upon entry into the state, provide written confirmation from a state approved COVID-19 testing facility of a negative test result from a test administered to the traveler within 72 hours from the final leg of departure, will be exempt from the mandatory quarantine.”
Travelers can now earn an exemption from quarantine with proof of a certified negative coronavirus test conducted within 72 hours of travel.
Balancing travel freedom around the islands with a level safety in a global pandemic, this program will jump start travel and tourism back to the islands.
Many of Hawaii’s largest industries revolve around tourism. According to the Hawaii Tourism Authority, in 2019, tourists spent $17.5 billion throughout all the Hawaiian Islands. Tourism is the largest single source of private capital for Hawaii’s economy.
“I think Governor Ige did hear loud and clear from members of the industry that we can’t continue to wait indefinitely,” said Stephanie Donoho, administrative director of the Kohala Coast Resort Association. “While I appreciate the governor’s announcement, I think a lot of my members are still waiting on the details of that plan. They want to see hard, actionable evidence.”
Lt. Governor Josh Green said that all arriving passengers, adults and children, will be required to take a test prior to landing in Hawai‘i. If the results are not available by the time they get to the state, those travelers will be required to quarantine until results are provided.
The state of Hawaii has agreements in place to facilitate the pre-travel testing program on the mainland with CVS and Walgreens, Kaiser Permanente, and a physician and urgent care network in Oregon called AFC. Travelers will pay out of pocket and the cost will be between $125 and $145 per person, per test.
In addition, the state has also approved tests that Hawaiian airlines and United airlines will offer to passengers before they arrive at the airport. Additional partnerships with other major U.S. airlines are in the works.
International travelers who can show proof of a qualifying test will also be able to skip the 14-day quarantine period.
Once travelers arrive in Hawaii, they will have to show proof of their test results and fill out the state’s digital “Safe Travels” form. The form collects health and contact information to assist in public health monitoring and contact tracing.
There are of course, critics of this plan. Many say one test isn’t reassuring and isn’t going to be enough to eliminate the possibility of positive cases. The fear is that people who caught the virus right before or after traveling en route to Hawaii means will be most contagious during travel or after they arrive in the islands.
The major concern is that the effectiveness of the test depends on how far the illness has progressed. An Oxford University paper published in Science estimated 45% of infections are spread by carriers before they develop symptoms.
Several Hawaii medical and research experts have advocated testing travelers at least twice: before and after they arrive to catch any infections that may have been missed by a test taken prior to travel.
In previous years, October tended to be a lighter travel month to Hawai‘i which could work in favor of the state’s plan by giving it a bit more time to be developed and adjusted before significant travel demand returns and allow for some trial and error as the plan kicks off.
It is highly likely that several hotels and resorts will opt to reopen their doors in November for the start of the holiday season rather than immediately on Oct. 15.
“We have some loyal people who have made reservations during that time forever. It’s multigenerational and they bring their families,” said one hotel spokesperson “As long as Hawai‘i can show that a pre-travel testing program is in place, we’ll see those die-hards who want to come.”
Airlines have consolidated flights to Hawai‘i, meaning that some formerly direct flights will now be rerouted through other mainland airports and include layovers, which increases travel time and increases the risk of exposure.
Ben Rafter, of Hawai‘i OLS Hotels, said last week during a Honolulu Civil Beat deep-dive presentation into the reopening of tourism that he’s expecting at least 1,000 restaurant closures statewide. He added that it will take between 18–30 months for tourism-reliant industries to feel like they’re in recovery.
“Things will open in stages depending on the number of people coming,” Stephanie Donoho of Kohala Coast Resort Association said. “Not all employees will come back all at once. Some of them, their functionality is around a particular market, banquet services and convention activites, direct ocean services, or spa-related services. They might not all come back at one time because we won’t yet have the volume. Restaurants may be phased in terms of reopening. Can margins be met, and (can we justify opening) a second one?”
Changes are happening all over the Kohala Coast to make environments safer. Most resorts are suspending valet services, implementing alternative cleaning systems, changing room security to keyless entry via a smartphone, sealing rooms, and removing commonly touched items like magazine.
Some tour companies had to suspend operations but reopened with the lifting of the interisland travel quarantine in June and the return of the kama‘aina economy. However, when that quarantine was reinstituted following surging cases on O‘ahu, demand fell off again.
“The news was big, to know we have a pre-travel testing program. We are very hopeful. (Business) probably will ramp up slowly. Long-time and loyal customers, people who come every year, stay at this resort or go on that tour, (businesses) are hearing from them about a pent up demand. We will welcome responsible travelers.”Keller Laros of Jack’s Diving Locker