As the drumbeat to open tourism in Hawaii grows louder by the day, the hospitality industry has been busy working with coronavirus risk management specialists to help them navigate uncharted territory to protect against COVID-19 litigation in anticipation of the day when the 14-day visitor quarantine is lifted and tourists flock back to Hawaii.

Architects specializing in COVID-19 safety design are reconfiguring public spaces and pinch points in hotels to conform to physical distancing guidelines. Logistics specialists are providing advice on kitchen operations and other areas where employees have to work in close quarters with each other or with customers.

Technology consultants are designing custom apps for contactless check-in, payment and food orders. Air filtration experts are examining air-conditioning systems.

Resorts have created positions to oversee coronavirus sanitation. Hyatt plans to introduce a cleaning, disinfection and infectious-disease-prevention program in June. Every Hyatt hotel will also have a hygiene manager.

Shores of Lanikai Beach with visitors enjoying the azure blue waters and powdered sand. 2 june 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
The crowded shores of Lanikai Beach in June 2015. Let’s be careful in how we go about reopening tourism in the time of COVID-19. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Hilton, Marriott and Outrigger Hotels have also announced enhanced disinfecting protocols requiring hospital-grade disinfectants, electrostatic sprayers and ultraviolet light technology. Guests will likely have to say aloha to lei greetings, valet parking and traditional breakfast buffets. Daily housekeeping may also need to be put on hold.

Close Screening Loopholes

Hawaiian Airlines is requiring passengers to wear masks during the duration of the flight. Seat assignments will be done manually with agents separating unrelated passengers by blocking middle seats. Yet, passengers will be removing masks to eat and drink during long flights. Children and passengers with respiratory conditions will be exempted from wearing a mask. With hardly any guidance from the FAA, airlines are making up their own COVID-19 safety regulations.

How often will the restrooms be cleaned during flights? How frequently will air filters be changed? There are many unanswered questions.

If the curve remains flat, we can expect the 14-day quarantine for inter-island travel to be lifted very soon. When that happens, hotels will see an uptick in staycation reservations. But Hawaii will probably keep the quarantine in place for out of state arrivals until reliable testing, screening and contact tracing are better implemented.

When the visitor quarantine is lifted and tourists return to Hawaii, it’s imperative that screening loopholes are closed for potential virus super-spreaders such as airline crew who usually breeze through TSA checkpoints. An outbreak at a resort can wipe out future reservations.

Contact tracing will be a double-edged sword since health officials will be able to pinpoint the source of the virus to a particular person and place. This gives rise to important legal questions: How liable is a resort if a guest or employee catches COVID-19 at that resort? If a restaurant is lax in enforcing the 6-foot distance rule, can someone who gets infected at that restaurant file a lawsuit? Hotels and tourism related businesses can go under quickly if subjected to coronavirus class-action litigation.

Are business owners going to require frontline employees to sign liability waivers before reporting to work? Many low wage employees, who have gone without a paycheck for months, will have no option but to return to work even if they are worried about their health or the health of a loved one. It will be these frontline workers — not business owners or hotel executives —who will be in frequent contact with visitors.

If an employee gets infected at work, will he or she be eligible for worker’s compensation? Will they get sick leave? Will whistleblowers be protected?
Several states and federal lawmakers (almost all Republican) are currently contemplating legislation that will create liability protection for businesses from COVID-19 litigation.

No system will be foolproof but rushing to open mass tourism before coronavirus mitigation efforts are fully in place might backfire. A recent study indicated that mainland businesses that did not comply with physical distancing rules were 35 times more likely to spread the virus.

An outbreak at a resort can wipe out future reservations.

Physical distancing requirements mean about a third less people on airplanes, restaurants, shops, tours and even in hotels. This will invariably lead to significantly higher prices which could mean less demand. After all, how many people can afford to pay 50 percent more for an air ticket or upwards of $100 for a steak at a restaurant? Hawaii’s answer seems to be “high caliber” tourists also known as high spenders.

When tourists pay significantly more for their Hawaii vacation, they are paying for safety and trust. Visitors who can afford to pay a premium for a Hawaii vacation may also be the types of people who play golf with their personal lawyers.

One high profile outbreak at a well-known resort in Waikiki can wipe out Hawaii’s new brand as the “safest place in the world.” And once Hawaii’s reputation as a virus-free haven is tarnished, it’s a long slow road to rebuild. Maybe it’s time to rethink that tagline.

Our economy is already pummeled and going back into lockdown would be devastating. As the drumbeat to open Hawaii’s tourist economy becomes deafening, our leaders must also listen to the concerns of frontline workers.

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