With COVID-19 cases surging in key Hawaii travel markets and supplies of COVID-19 testing material under stress, Gov. David Ige on Monday said he would push back until Sept. 1 a planned date for opening Hawaii to travelers from outside the state.

A previously announced plan to let visitors bypass a 14-day quarantine was supposed to go into effect Aug. 1.

That plan would let travelers skip the quarantine if they tested negative for the virus 72 hours before leaving their point of origin for Hawaii. But on Monday, after meeting with island mayors for several days, Ige said the state was not ready.

“This decision comes after much, much discussion,” Ige said. “This was not an easy decision to make. It really was a choice between two difficult options.”

The announcement comes as Hawaii faces an economic crisis as one of its biggest industries remains virtually shut down. Before the COVID-19 crisis, as recently as January, Hawaii’s hotels and restaurants accounted for slightly more than 114,000 jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Waikiki during COVID19 pandemic ‘We Are Open’ with shops posting large banners along Kalaukaua Avenue. July 10, 2020
Shops along Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki were open for business in July, even as they waited for tourists to begin arriving. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

As of May, employment in the industries had dropped by 59% to about 45,200. That did not count thousands of additional jobs in retail firms that cater to tourists.

Overall, approximately 148,000 people statewide were unemployed as of May, according to the bureau. And that has changed little in recent weeks as Hawaii’s local economy has opened up more.

During a Monday meeting of the House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness, Carl Bonham, executive director of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization, said that unemployment claims remained at about 125,000, according to the most recent available data.

Ige made a rare appearance during the meeting, which was held by Zoom, in which he said he planned to extend the quarantine through August. That announcement was hardly unexpected, as the plan to reopen to tourists has relied on the quarantine to be in place, and for the tests to allow an exception to the quarantine.

The real news came later, when Ige said he would delay the plan to create an exception for people — residents returning home as well as visiting tourists — who were tested.

Ige said he and the mayors had made the decision with protecting residents in mind.

“This will make our economic recovery more challenging,” he said. “But as I have always said, your health and safety comes first.”

The Situation For Businesses Is ‘Dire’

Tourism businesses and other small firms have been struggling for months and had hailed the Aug. 1 reopening as something that could at least partially save the summer – and perhaps their businesses. The changed plan was clearly a setback.

“Now, these plans are on hold and local businesses are left holding the bag,” said Sherry Menor-McNamara, president and chief executive of the Hawaii Chamber of Commerce. “We understand the need to put safety first, but the situation for many local businesses grows more dire by the day.”

She called on state and country leaders to provide relief to businesses.

“Businesses are doing their part to enforce safety measures to stop the spread of COVID-19,” she said. “They should be able to count on government to set a clear path forward toward economic stabilization and recovery.”

Chris Tatum, president and chief executive of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, a state agency, was more measured.

“We want to welcome back our visitors once our state is ready to do so in a safe manner that will hopefully avoid the need to backtrack in the future. Once we receive details on the process and requirements from the Department of Transportation and the DOH, we will share that information with the visitor industry.”

Ige attributed the decision to a combination of trends: surges in cases in major markets like California and Nevada, a disruption of supply chains for special chemicals needed for COVID-19 tests and a surge in cases in Hawaii. Over the weekend, Hawaii recorded 63 new cases, including a one-day record of 42 on Saturday, said Bruce Anderson, the state’s health department director.

Anderson said the rise in cases seems to be the result of people not wearing masks and not engaging in physical distancing – or staying at least 6 feet apart – during social and business gatherings.

The original Aug. 1 date for implementing the testing plan was set to roughly coincide with reopening Hawaii’s public schools on Aug. 4. Ige said schools are still on track to reopen on that date.

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