A month after Gov. David Ige’s mandatory 14-day travel quarantine went into effect, airport personnel are still having trouble keeping track of travelers flying into Hawaii.
Ige extended the quarantine to the end of May, and the state Department of Transportation implemented a stronger system of checks last Thursday. But there’s still no way to make sure travelers aren’t going to short-term vacation rentals or that returning residents are staying put at home.
It’s drawn the ire of a panel of senators, who have spent the last month criticizing various aspects of the Ige administration’s response to the coronavirus. Now, the senators worry that the DOT won’t be ready for a possible surge of flights to the islands in the latter half of May.
On Thursday, members of the Senate special COVID-19 committee told transportation officials to come up with a better plan to keep track of arrivals and to lay out what resources they need if the quarantine continues.
The panel suggested that, if the administration doesn’t act more quickly, lawmakers would legislate changes when the Legislature reconvenes its session, possibly as soon as next week. The Legislature has been in recess since March 16.
Under the current system, airport workers and Hawaii Tourism Authority staff call hotels to make sure visitors have a reservation. Residents’ addresses are checked against county databases and their government ID.
For the senators, the biggest hole in the quarantine system has been short-term vacation rentals. All of those rentals were to suspend operations under Ige’s emergency proclamation.
Ross Higashi, DOT deputy director for state airports, said it’s impossible for the state and the counties to determine if an address is actually a vacation rental. Higashi said that, even after staff verify an address, the homeowner could be colluding with the travelers.
Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz said they should try to call the homeowner anyway. Sen. Donna Kim agreed.
“You’ve got to do the best you can,” Kim said. “If you can’t catch them, you can’t catch them. But a lot of these people are blatantly violating (the quarantine).”
Keith Regan, the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s chief administrative officer, said that out of the 14,000 calls the HTA and DOT have made to check on people in quarantine, they’ve referred 330 to law enforcement officers.
Breaking the quarantine could result in a misdemeanor punishable by a fine up to $5,000 and up to a year in jail.
Regan told the committee that most of the travelers coming in are either people returning from college, friends of local families or workers here on business.
Dela Cruz gave the counties, DOT and HTA until May 8 to come up with a plan to better collaborate on quarantine enforcement. He said the senators planned to visit the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport Friday morning to examine the process.
Whether or not airlines even decide to fly to Hawaii again if there’s a quarantine is up in the air.
“As things start to open up, there may be people that will take a look,” Chris Tatum, HTA CEO, said. “But for the most part, I don’t think the numbers are going to grow as long as the quarantine stays on.”
On Thursday, of the 590 passengers that flew to Hawaii, 187 were visitors. That number, still tens of thousands fewer than the number of arrivals during previous peak travel seasons, has been steadily creeping up in the past week.
Higashi, citing the Official Airline Guide, told the committee that Hawaiian Airlines may be ramping up flights throughout May.
That’s not the case, according to Ann Botticelli, a company spokeswoman, who explained that scheduled flights have been cancelled but may have not been updated with OAG.
The airline has just three daily flights from the U.S. mainland from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. Those flights are mostly for cargo, she said.
For Hawaiian, all other mainland routes are suspended until May 20, and international routes won’t come back until at least May 31, according to the airline’s flight schedule.
Officials from the Hawaii Department of Health were also questioned Thursday by state senators about how Hawaii could prepare for new arrivals.
Dr. Sarah Park, the state epidemiologist, said Hawaii’s health care system would have to be ready in terms of capacity, personnel and personal protective equipment.
“If you’re asking my opinion, then my opinion is we try and maintain that 14-day quarantine as long as possible while we prepare the rest of society,” she said.
Park and DOH Director Bruce Anderson said it’s highly likely that the virus could be reintroduced.
“We cannot shut off Hawaii forever from this disease,” Anderson said. “We can’t be isolated forever.”
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Blaze Lovell is a reporter for Civil Beat and a graduate of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He was born and raised on Oahu. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @blaze_lovell