I am concerned that we are not having a robust policy discussion across our community about how to “reopen” Hawaii’s economy. There are so-called special advisory committees, but very little in the way of a public discussion about the “elephant in the room” — tourism.

NOTE: pick the correct link

When extensive testing is still not available and an effective vaccine is nowhere to be found, can Hawaii just “open up” and welcome 10 million visitors a year back to our shores?

Economists have warned for decades that the state’s economy is disproportionately dependent on tourism. In Hawaii, our whole business model is about asking millions of potentially infected strangers to come share our home. Recall the late 1770s when Hawaii’s native population succumbed in great numbers to disease (including smallpox) to which they had no immunity.

Regardless of any “screening” measures you may want to take, when you are welcoming tens of thousands of visitors every day, there are going to be infected (perhaps even asymptomatic) people slipping through. And then it only takes one slip up to rekindle the fires of infection among a community that has no practical treatment or vaccine.

Japan Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines aircraft parked at Daniel K Inouye International Airport.
Japan Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines aircraft parked at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in February. A return to mass tourism during the pandemic may require extreme measures to ensure public safety. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Stand at a podium and talk all you want about percentages and “per capita” infection rates, if one sick visitor gets through, we’re all at risk.

If local workers are once again exposed to visitors carrying the infection, it will ripple through the community.  And regardless of how long and loud our health officials tell us to “stay-home-if-you-are-sick,” the reality of “I-need-the-paycheck” is going to overwhelm any official admonitions and any common sense.

Reinstitute restrictions? How big a police force will you need to enforce those orders?

Temperature screenings? How big a police force will you need to check temperatures? And how many times do you need to be told that asymptomatic people can carry the virus?

The government can’t even reliably track the few hundred that are coming in now.

Powerful Interests

I’m sure the governor and the mayors are being subjected to some pretty heavy lobbying by business interests who really want to get the tourism money machine cranking again. And, there are probably some unions that wouldn’t mind getting their members back to work.

And there are transportation companies (airplanes, buses and rental cars) that would love to put rubber to the road and wings in the air. There are students that need to go back to school, and restaurants that feel the need to feed; etc.

Those are all pretty powerful interests that cannot be ignored.

So, if capitulation is inevitable, maybe the government should think about shifting the burden of funding our safety to those people who are going to be making a bunch of money schlepping visitors to our shores.

  • Like how about: All businesses that cater to the visitor industry must contribute to a fund that will pay medical expenses, lost wages, rent/mortgage payments, and family care costs to any worker who gets sick from exposure to an infected visitor.
  • Like how about: If an airline ships in an infected person, the airline is liable for any and all medical costs that person may incur.
  • Like how about: If an infected person gets ill at a hotel, the hotel must completely shut down for two weeks and be thoroughly disinfected.
  • Like how about: If an infected person can be tracked to a restaurant, the restaurant must close down and be disinfected.
  • Like how about: The visitor industry finally pays wages high enough to entice employees to want to work in a hotbed of infectious disease.
  • Like how about: All those people who are left still unemployed be offered jobs in a new COVID-19 police force — a large agency funded by the visitor industry that does quarantine checks and contract tracing.
  • Like how about: Every single person that enters the state (regardless of how) must have had an antibody screening within three hours of their arrival (assuming that’s how long they’ll wait in line for the testing).

I’m just offering up some ideas to begin the discussion of how to safely reopen the state of Hawaii to hoards of visitors who are the bedrock of the state’s economy.

If we don’t start having a broad public discussion of our way forward, the powerful special interests and politicians will do it for us — and they may or may not have our best interests at heart.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a current photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.org. The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

About the Author