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. (Oct. 7)
Hawaii is going to start providing an alternative to its mandatory quarantine rule next week, but don’t pack your swimsuit without knowing the details.
Visiting the islands still won’t be as carefree as it has been in the past, and there are still elements in the plan to be worked out.
Starting Thursday, the state begins allowing tourists to forego a 14-day quarantine if they get negative results to a COVID-19 test at least 72 hours before their departure from the mainland. The Safe Travels program was supposed to begin Sept. 1 but was postponed after a coronavirus spike in the state.
Does Hawaii actually want tourists?
“I want people to come if they are fully prepared to test, know that they are healthy and are prepared to wear a mask,” Lt. Gov. Josh Green, who has taken a leading role in developing the program, told USA TODAY. “If they do all those things, we are excited to resume our relationship with old friends.”
But, he added, “we are very mindful of risk, and we’re just trying to begin the process of a healthy restoration of our economy. We are not pushing for any large numbers. We just want to begin to kind of shake off the rust.”
You’ll need to be tested to skip quarantine
All visitors ages 5 and up must be tested to participate in the program. And the tests must be conducted by certain health care companies, including those that have linked up with airlines.
Travelers should check with their authorized tester to make there are no age limits if they intend to bring children. Some won’t test children age 12 or younger, Green said.
Hawaiian Airlines’ at-home COVID-19 test kits can be used for people of any age. Vault Health, a telemedicine provider, says children can take its saliva-based test. Large airlines serving Hawaii have made arrangements to let customers take part in the test program at airports, clinics or at home depending on the carrier.
Some promise results faster than others. United Airlines will have a $250 rapid test available at San Francisco International Airport in which results are delivered in minutes, not days.
Besides the airlines and some health care providers, approved tests for Hawaii also can be had at drug store giants CVS and Walgreens, Green said.
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You’ll have to endure a long flight in a mask
With Hawaii about 2,500 miles from the mainland, airline passengers will have to decide whether they are willing to risk going through the whole travel process – the ride to the airport, the wait to get on the plane and the trip itself – without contracting the virus they’ve already had to prove they don’t have.
They will also have to be willing to sit on a plane for five hours while wearing a mask. Parents could face the daunting challenge of trying to keep a mask on a fidgety toddler. Most airlines that fly to Hawaii, including United, Hawaiian, Alaska and Southwest, require them for any child over 2.
“We’re fortunate and appreciate that our guests understand their role to keep all of us safe by wearing a face mask or covering when traveling, including young children,” said Hawaiian Airlines spokeswoman Tara Shimooka.
Some islands may not allow the pre-test
Among the uncertainties is whether individual islands will participate in the testing program that allows visitors to skip a quarantine.
Hawaii Gov. David Ige said at a news conference last week that he continues to talk with the mayor of the Big Island of Hawaii, who has indicated he wants to opt out of the test program and continue requiring visitors to quarantine for 14 days.
On Monday, Ige denied a request from the island of Kauai that would have established its own post-arrival testing program.
“A single pre-arrival testing program alone does not provide the needed level of protection for our Kauai community,” said Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami in a statement. He said the island secured 15,000 rapid tests and will develop a plan to mitigate the virus’ spread.
Green said that as of Friday, all the mayors are on board with the pre-test program for mainland visitors. However, anyone traveling between islands, whether residents or visitors, is still required to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival.
You may be asked to retest in Hawaii
The state says it may ask about 10% of travelers, including children, to take a second COVID-19 test four days after they arrive. The second test is optional, he said, intended to give the state another way to make sure its efforts are working. No one can be ordered to take it.
Why the second test? Because about 1 out of 1,000 passengers who were negative on the pre-test are expected to be positive after they arrive, Green said, a number considered manageable. A second “reference” test can help make sure those predictions are holding.
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How many tourists are willing to go through all that?
Even after completing the tests, visitors may not find the bustling dining-and-shopping paradise they expected. Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said his city has some of the same conditions found in many mainland cities: bars closed, mask requirements in public places and many tourist attractions and activities on hiatus.
Masks will be required everywhere, even beaches if a family is near other people, Green said.
As a result, island officials aren’t entirely sure how many tourists to expect once the testing program begins.
Green is expecting about 2,000 to 3,000 visitors a day to start with “significant increases” in travel next February and March.
The climb could be a long one, too. Because of the requirement to quarantine, tourism to Hawaii has fallen off a cliff. Hawaii’s daily visitor count shows a drop of more than 90% most days so far this month compared with the same days last year.
State, airlines going out on a limb to restart tourism
The number of people infected with COVID-19 has fallen to low enough levels that Hawaii officials feel they can take the risk. The state has had more than 13,000 cases and 160 deaths, the Johns Hopkins coronavirus tracker reports.
New cases are down, with only 92 on average per day over the past week, though there was a single-day spike being reported Friday to 155, and 106 people were in hospitals, Green said.
Gov. Ige said he is confident that Hawaii can protect residents. The federal government is providing 90,000 test kits in case of a surge.
The goal is to “ensure we can bring trans-Pacific travelers back to the islands in a safe way that does not put our community health at risk,” Ige said. But “there are thousands of moving parts and things are continually changing every day.”
And Green said the state has 300 contact tracers ready to go with another 300 in reserve.
With the new program, airlines are anticipating more passengers to Hawaii and are ready to boost service. Hawaiian Airlines is among them, gradually ramping up by adding Phoenix, Oakland and San Jose over the next month.
Can the plan succeed in successfully ramping up and reviving the state’s economy while not letting the coronavirus run wild?
“I am the eternal optimist,” he said.
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