The mayors of Honolulu, Hawaii and Kauai counties say their islands are no longer ready to allow incoming trans-Pacific travelers to opt out of the state’s 14-day quarantine — at least not without some major policy changes.

Gov. David Ige announced two weeks ago that visitors would be able to skip the prohibitive quarantine process and enjoy a Hawaii vacation more freely starting Aug. 1 if they could provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of their travel departure.

Since then, two crucial factors in the state’s ability to reopen tourism while keeping residents safe have changed: Rising COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in states such as Arizona, California, Texas and Florida, and the sudden and significant undermining of Hawaii’s testing capacity by supply chain disruptions.

State officials want to begin allowing tourists back into the state without forcing them to quarantine. Rapidly boosting tourism is the state’s best hope for short-term economic recovery. Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat/2020


Diagnostic Laboratory Services, which has conducted a sweeping portion of COVID-19 diagnostic tests in the islands, has been cut off from chemical reagents from its primary vendor, Roche Diagnostics. Supplies are being diverted to higher priority states.

Now, with infection rates soaring in many of Hawaii’s key visitor markets and the state’s testing capacity under renewed threat, some political leaders are asking for major changes to Hawaii’s reopening plan or a delayed reopening date.

Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami was blunt: “I’ll be upfront to say that if we are looking to reopen on Aug. 1, then we are not ready.” 

One problem is that the hospitality industry has already invested money to get hotel and resort properties ready to accept visitors again.

Gov. David Ige and Hawaii’s four county mayors have taken up the debate over what to do about the impending tourism reopening date during hours-long meetings on Wednesday and Thursday.

A Maui County spokesperson said Mayor Michael Victorino was unavailable to comment for this story.

But KHON2 reported this week that Victorino wants to see everyone show proof of a negative COVID-19 test result before boarding a flight to Hawaii. Sick passengers, he said, are his primary concern.

In a prepared statement, Ige said he and the mayors are considering input from community leaders as they reassess how to balance the need to resuscitate tourism — Hawaii’s leading, $18 billion industry that’s presently producing almost nil — with the need to stave off an unmanageable infection rate.

“I could see the date staying Aug. 1 if we were more rigorous in how visitors came in,” said Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell. “Maybe you only allow people in who have a negative test, they can’t come otherwise.”

“But with the conditions that are now in place, I don’t think it’s safe enough.”

Gov. David Ige said the state is trying to balance the need to restart Hawaii’s tourism industry with staving off an unmanageable infection rate. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

It’s unclear when Ige will come to a decision.

If the state does decide to move forward with the Aug. 1 reopening date, Kawakami said he will ask Ige to grant Kauai a grace period to hold off on allowing tourists back to the Garden Isle.

With only nine ICU beds and 15 ventilators, Kauai is particularly fragile in its ability to manage any significant surge in COVID-19 cases, Kawakami said. 

“I don’t think we had anticipated to see this type of surge in cases in some states that we historically draw a lot of visitors from,” Kawakami said. “As they start to look at shutting down, I just don’t see how we can start opening up and say, ‘Hey, come on over.’”

Kawakami said his top priority is avoiding another shutdown on Kauai, which endured some of the harshest coronavirus restrictions in the state, including a nightly curfew and highway checkpoints.

Now Garden Isle residents are enjoying relatively low virus rates compared to other counties. Kawakami said he does not want to jeopardize the payoff of residents’ hard-earned sacrifices by slackening trans-Pacific visitor restrictions prematurely.

Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim said he is concerned by the state’s lack of a real-time, digitized system to assist county police departments in tracking visitors subject to the 14-day quarantine, a mechanism that under the current plan would still be in place come Aug. 1 for those travelers who decline to produce proof of a negative diagnostic test for COVID-19.

Both Kim and Caldwell said they put little faith in the quarantine to prevent the spread of infection because, they say, there aren’t enough resources to stringently enforce it.

I cannot accept their plan to move forward without this being addressed,” Kim said.

Yet while the governor appears to be carefully considering the county mayors’ perspectives, the power to decide when the state’s effective ban on tourism will end rests in Ige’s hands.

For Caldwell, another concern is the recent spike in COVID-19 cases in the islands even before tourism’s planned reboot.

“We initially were told that when we opened up to visitors, we’d see maybe a total of 50 cases a day,” Caldwell said. “We’re getting close to 50 before any visitors come in.”

But Caldwell, Kim and Kawakami all stressed the need to get hospitality employees back to work, creating a conundrum that the state’s political leaders continue to try to solve.

One idea put forth by Kawakami is to reopen hotel properties as “quarantine resorts,” where trans-Pacific guests can check in and enjoy resort amenities but will not be allowed to leave the premises.

“We have to think outside the box,” Kawakami said.

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