In a first step toward restarting the state’s largest private employment sector, Hawaii’s tourism industry will begin opening up on June 16, but only for people traveling within the state among the neighbor islands, Gov. David Ige said on Monday.

The announcement that interisland travel will resume came as industry executives have been expressing increasing frustration about the lack of a clear plan for reopening an industry that provided about one in six jobs statewide before it was all but shut down to control the spread of COVID-19.

Hawaiian Airlines Daniel Inouye Airport.

Hawaii’s main economic driver is tourism and state officials took a first step toward allowing that industry to resume by easing restrictions on interisland flights.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The slowdown appears to have worked well to keep the virus in check in Hawaii, which has had only a few new cases reported each day in recent weeks.

But it also has posed a quandary for policymakers: how to reopen travel between Hawaii and the U.S. continent when doing so will almost certainly bring the virus back to the islands.

Opening to interisland travel first is a safer incremental step: a soft opening that can give some businesses a reason to restart and gear up for a more expansive opening later.

Ige’s announcement means people traveling between the islands will not be subjected to a 14-day quarantine that now applies to all passengers arriving at airports. Ige said they should have a plan soon for a broader opening but that inter-island travel would be the first step.

In making the announcement Ige stressed that the top priority is protecting residents.

“Your health comes first,” he said.

Although the lifting of the quarantine for interisland travel has been expected — officials hinted at it last week — the announcement was important enough the governor made it with great fanfare at Honolulu’s Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.

Also on hand were a number of high-ranking officials: Lt. Gov. Josh Green; Hawaii Senate President Ronald Kouchi; Hawaii House Speaker Scott Saiki; Clare Connors, the state’s attorney general; Bruce Anderson, director of Hawaii’s heath department and Tim Sakahara, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation.

Peter Ingram, president and chief executive of Hawaiian Airlines, which is the dominant carrier serving Hawaii and the state’s largest private employer, also attended.

A Rare Unified Voice

The participants presented a unified message that’s at times been missing as government officials have responded to the crisis. While Hawaii’s response has mostly quashed the virus locally, there has been disagreement and mixed messages about things like testing and contact tracing.

But during the governor’s press conference, Saiki said this time there was general agreement.

“We are all on the same page,” he said.

The overarching concern was not so much about restarting the economy – although that was part of it – but, rather, about safety.

“Comprehensive screening will be part of the plan,” Lt. Gov. Josh Green said. “So it will be very safe.”

Green said reported cases will likely increase from current levels, which have been few or none per day for weeks. But he said the state will have enough systems in place to keep the virus from spreading significantly and the state’s hospitals have capacity to handle an increase.

“Obviously there are going to be a few more cases,” he said. “We’ll keep monitoring this constantly so that we’re safe.”

That echoed the response of some business leaders at an informational briefing by a House committee Saiki co-chairs, which focuses on the economic response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Peter Ho, chairman and chief executive of Bank of Hawaii, said he agreed the state needs to be deliberate in the way it reopens: out of concerns for public safety and public opinion.

“It’s not a simple situation,” Ho said. “There are public safety issues. There are public sentiment issues.”

A Civil Beat survey conducted in late May found that residents are overwhelmingly concerned about the virus versus the economy. Conducted by Civil Beat in partnership with Hawaii News Now, the poll found voters strongly support stay-at-home orders (71%) and a 14-day quarantine for arrivals (71%) that were put in place by emergency orders from Ige, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and the other county mayors.

More vocal in a call to open tourism outside the state was Wendy Laros, executive director of the Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce. But even Laros, whose members include major resorts on the Big Island, said public safety should come first. She said the biggest concern is setting a timeline for opening so businesses could gear up and prepare for guests.

“Dates would be really great if that’s a possibility,” she said.

For now, interisland passengers will face some new policies and procedures, said Connors, the attorney general. These include a new form to fill out with travel information as well as temperature checks of passengers.

Down the line, when Hawaii opens up to tourists from elsewhere, the state will likely adopt additional measures. Although Connors, during the House committee briefing earlier in the day, said Hawaii could not test tourists as a condition of coming to Hawaii, she said testing possibly could be used to help with screening. Many decisions will be guided by public health officials, she said.

“As we stand here now, everything we do will be motivated by the health guidance,” she said.

Officials also took the opportunity to encourage people to visit neighbor islands. With almost no visitors from outside of Hawaii crowding beaches other popular sites, Ige said it might be a good time for a trip to another island.

Hawaiian Airlines’ Ingram said the carrier will likely have some good deals to encourage people.

“We’re going to have fares that I think people are going to find very attractive,” he said.

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