Hawaii Balances Tourism and Health in its COVID-19 Reopening Strategy | Best States

The Polynesian Cultural Center, an attraction located on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, has been closed since March 16 – when the coronavirus pandemic started to make its impact on the state.

Previously, the longest stretch during which the center – which opened officially in 1963 – shut its doors was three days. And it was due to a hurricane, according to Greg Maples, the center’s director of restaurant services. Now, Maples says the current closure will likely continue until at least September.

“The bottom line is, without tourism, we are in a world of hurt,” says Maples, who is also the incoming chairman of the Hawaii Restaurant Association.

While the state has managed the pandemic well – health officials report only 835 cases and 17 deaths as of June 24 – its tourism industry, a key cog in Hawaii’s economy, has been badly damaged due to the shutdown. Tourism contributed to 16% of the state’s gross domestic product in 2019, which was the second-largest share among all sectors, according to government data.

Photos: Tourism Industry Amid COVID-19

This picture taken on March, 24, 2020 shows mules carrying empty gas cylinders along a path in the Mt. Everest region. - The Himalayan hilltown of Khumjung should be bustling with foreign trekkers gearing up for one of Mount Everest's biggest weeks of the year, but the COVID-19 coronavirus has shut down the mountain and threatened the livelihood of the sherpas who rely on it. (Photo by PRAKASH MATHEMA / AFP) / TO GO WITH Health-virus-pandemic-Nepal-climbing,FOCUS by Paavan Mathema (Photo by PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP via Getty Images)

Gov. David Ige and his administration are attempting to balance health and safety with the need to restart inbound tourism. On Wednesday, the governor announced a plan that would repeal Hawaii’s mandatory quarantine for out-of-state visitors who don’t show signs of the virus, a move that could lead to more travelers.

The pandemic’s impact on Hawaii’s economy is already evident in state data. General fund tax revenues will not recover to pre-crisis levels until fiscal year 2025, according to Charlene Chan, special adviser to the director of the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. The state’s economic growth rate will drop by 12% for fiscal year 2020, she said over email.

Chan also shared a report from the Hawaii Tourism Authority, which shows that hotel occupancy in the state decreased by 69% in April, and that revenue per available room decreased by nearly 95% compared to April 2019. About 50% of Hawaii’s restaurants had to close completely because they could not offer takeout, Maples says. An April report from the Economic Research Organization at the University of Hawaii showed that the food services industry in the state could see a 42% decline in revenues this year.

Ige, a Democrat, tells U.S. News that Hawaii is getting approximately 99.5% less travelers, with daily visitors declining from about 30,000 to between 600 and 800 on average. But he says he has a plan for reopening the state, which is a phased approach similar to the strategies many other states are taking.

“As we look at trying to restore travel and restart our visitor industry, we want to be focused on health and health data as an important driver in reopening,” Ige says. “But we know that we need to invite back guests from out of state in order to really get our economy going.”

The first phase, he says, is easing inter-island travel in Hawaii, which was kickstarted when Ige lifted the 14-day quarantine requirement for inter-island travelers on June 16. Ige says a new health form will be required for all island-to-island travelers, and this will likely be in effect until a COVID-19 vaccine is developed.

Inbound tourism, meanwhile, will take a bit longer to restart in earnest. Mandatory self-quarantine protocols for out-of-state visitors, which are currently facing legal challenges, were recently extended through July 31.

Starting on Aug. 1, according to a plan announced earlier this week, out-of-state visitors will be required to get a valid COVID-19 test prior to their arrival in Hawaii and show proof of a negative result upon entry.

Without proof of a negative test, travelers will have to quarantine for 14 days in Hawaii. Temperature checks will also continue at airports in the state, and anyone with a temperature above 100.4 degrees or symptoms of the virus will have to get a secondary screening. Out-of-state travelers will also have to fill out a health form.

“Now is the time to work together to ensure that our local businesses can safely re-open to incoming travelers,” Ige said in a written statement.

Ige’s plan is “almost identical” to one proposed in a report released earlier this month by the University of Hawaii’s Economic Research Organization, according to Sumner La Croix, a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Hawaii and co-author of the June report.

“All in all, we think the governor’s plan is well conceived and, if executed properly, will allow Hawaii’s tourism industry to reopen safely and for the Hawaii economy to have a rapid and strong recovery,” La Croix said in an email.

Maples, of the Polynesian Cultural Center, says he supports reopening the state in a safe fashion, but also hopes that it happens soon. He worries about what will happen if the U.S. government starts incentivizing people to go back to work, but there still aren’t any jobs in Hawaii because of the tourism shutdown.

“Thousands and thousands of young workers will leave Hawaii and go to the mainland to get jobs because our taxes are high here, our living expenses are extremely high,” he says. “Most people are living two to three generations in a home because they can’t afford it. People are gonna bail out of here.”

But Maples adds that he appreciates the Ige administration’s efforts toward making Hawaii a safe place for both residents and visitors. Ige himself says he is advocating for reinventing “every part of the hospitality industry” in the state, with improved sanitation and cleaning protocols, guidelines to protect tourism industry employees and education for visitors on what it means to be a “good, respectful traveler,” both in terms of respecting the culture of Hawaii and the health of the community.

The challenge, Ige says, is that the “pandemic is unfolding on different timetables in different communities, states and countries all around the world.”

“We are being thoughtful in how we restart tourism,” he adds. “We want to try and minimize the health risk, but we know that there will be increased health risk. And our entire industry has to be prepared to manage that in the best way, on behalf of our guests and on behalf of our community.”