POIPU, Kauai — Two high-end Kauai resorts will move ahead with establishing themselves as “bubble” hotels.

The decision by the hotels comes despite Gov. David Ige’s announcement that as of Oct. 15 Hawaii will start admitting trans-Pacific travelers who record one negative COVID-19 test within three days of arrival, eliminating the need for resort bubbles as a way to entice tourists.

Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami, who has championed the resort bubble concept, told Civil Beat that Kauai will move ahead with the experiment in case future COVID-19 outbreaks on the mainland or elsewhere require Hawaii to button up its tourist industry yet again.

Critics were also quick to challenge Ige’s new policy, arguing it will not adequately protect Hawaii from new infections being brought into the state by visitors. They urged an even more aggressive resort bubble program than what Kawakami has been developing.

A maintenance worker spruces things up at a nearly deserted Hokuala-Timbers Ocean Club and Resort near Lihue. Allan Parachini/Civil Beat/2020

On Oct. 15, Hawaii’s existing requirement that visitors undergo a 14-day quarantine immediately after they arrive in the state will no longer apply to visitors as well as residents who can prove they have had a negative COVID-19 test within three days of traveling. Such visitors will face no restrictions on other movement once they arrive here.

The announcement appeared to undermine a plan by Kawakami to create a series of designated hotels in which newly arrived visitors could quarantine and be required to wear GPS-powered bracelets that could allow police to be called if they left the grounds of their hotels. The concept has quickly been dubbed the “resort bubble” system.

The bubble concept emerged initially on Kauai in August when an ad hoc community group of doctors and community leaders released a plan to reopen tourism by which visitors would be tested before they arrived on Kauai, then five or six days after arrival. In the interim, tourists would be housed in hotels where they could move about the grounds, but could not leave the premises.

Electronic bracelets, hotel security and the Kauai Police Department would be responsible for assuring compliance. The plan was initially panned as impractical, but Kawakami ordered his staff to identify hotels that might participate voluntarily.

In the interview, Kawakami said that Ige’s announcement was not the end of the bubble plan. “Absolutely not. It’s good to have a contingency plan,” he said.

If there is a “huge outbreak somewhere” that would otherwise require the pre-test requirement to be scrapped, the mayor said, it will allow hotels and resorts that have a bubble plan to continue to operate.

“Guests would have to stay on the property,” he said. “From the law enforcement side, it makes it much more manageable.”

He emphasized that the county will expect the hotel facilities themselves to set up and enforce effective ways to keep bubble-quarantined visitors separated from residents and others and that the Kauai Police Department and public agencies will not be the primary enforcers.

Timbers staff members work in the almost deserted lobby of what might become one of two resort bubbles. Allan Parachini/Civil Beat/2020

Allowing lodging facilities to remain open with bubble precautions in place, Kawakami said, could minimize new layoffs in the hospitality industry and businesses that support it.

He said of having bubble resorts available, with practices and procedures to keep guests confined and allow for testing and other health measures to protect employees, “It’s good to have contingencies.”

Kawakami and hotel executives said the county has distributed detailed guidelines to which resorts will be required to adhere to ensure that guests stay on the property, don’t mingle with people who are not under quarantine and keep staff members safe.

The mayor conceded that the concept is untested.

“The forecasts in terms of customer count are all just hypothetical,” he said. “Traveling during a pandemic is going to make most travelers second guess whether it’s worth it. We may be attracting people who already got sick (with COVID-19) and achieved some sort of immunity.”

Kawakami said how bubble guests could access beaches remains to be determined. He has said repeatedly that, as a lifelong surfer himself, he will not shut down portions of any beach for the exclusive use of quarantined hotel bubble guests.

Richard Albrecht, president of the Kukuiula Development Co., parent company of the Club at Kukuiula, said his resort in Koloa would be ready to put the resort bubble plan into operation on Oct. 1, a date previously identified by Ige as when trans-Pacific quarantine requirements would end.

Gary Moore, general manager at Hokuala-Timbers Ocean Club and Resort, said his resort near Lihue would do the same.

A third hotel near Lihue also may be formulating a bubble plan.

Kukuiula and Hokuala-Timbers are very high- end condo-hotel operations. Nightly room charges at Timbers can exceed $2,100 per night. Rates at the Lodge at Kukuiula start at about $1,300 per night. Neither resort is directly on the beach. Both have golf courses.

Albrecht said his resort would set aside one of its swimming pools exclusively for guests staying in the bubble program, reserve special tee times for bubble guests and restrict golf groups to people in the bubble program.

“We’re fortunate that most of our facilities are outside,” Albrecht said. “There’s really good air flow and our staff is unlikely to be in a closed environment” with such guests.

Moore said the plan at Timbers is similar and that the resort would move forward with it on Oct. 1, even if it’s just for a brief test before the governor’s new plan takes effect. He said his hotel has already ordered GPS-powered bracelets that bubble guests will have to wear.

Timbers plans to introduce mandatory temperature checks for the first seven days of guests’ stays and guests will have to sign an agreement to obey all quarantine-related rules.

Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami during joint WAM FInance Meeting 2020.
Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami wants to proceed with the resort bubble experiment. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

“People largely obey rules,” Moore said. “We’re moving forward with it.”

He said the program will initially be tested with owners of vacation homes and condos on the property who decide to return to Kauai in October.

Kawakami on Friday said he was encouraged by the hotels’ plans.

“This is not a silver bullet solution, but another tool in the toolbox for both resorts and visitors,” he said.

He noted that the county program will still be useful with categories of travelers who may remain subject to quarantine requirements under Ige’s order.

These include interisland travelers, mainland travelers who took tests but have not yet received results, people who were unable to be tested, and those who opt out of Ige’s pre-travel test program and automatically become subject to the existing 14-day quarantine requirement.

Former mayor and county council member JoAnn Yukimura, who was one of the organizers of the Kauai COVID-19 Discussion Group which originally proposed the two-test system with tourists staying at closed resort bubble hotels in between, said she was unenthusiastic about the program Kawakami is putting in place.

The test that Ige’s plan will require, she said, will not stop infections coming to Kauai in people who become infected after they take the mandatory pre-arrival test, travelers who may be infected on the plane flying here, people who break the quarantine, and people who are infected when they arrive, but not at sufficient virus levels to test positive.

She’s worried that hundreds of infected tourists could enter the state per month undetected. “Added to the infections already in the community, these additional cases will be like fuel to fire,” Yukimura said.

“Maybe we are thinking of this reopening all wrong,” said Dr. Lee Evslin, a prominent Kauai pediatrician and co-founder of the COVID-19 Discussion Group. Though he said the “tiny bubbles” concept may make sense, he said other changes are essential.

They include the two-test sequence the committee first proposed, permitting quarantining in vacation rental properties — with an emphasis on places that have yards that visitors can use — and creation of “a whole industry” serving the needs of quarantined people, from food delivery to transportation.

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