Lee Cataluna: Hang On For Hawaii's Iffy Reopening - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Lee Cataluna

Lee Cataluna is a columnist for Civil Beat. You can reach her by email at lcataluna@civilbeat.org

Thursday marks the next phase of Hawaii’s 2020 pandemic odyssey: the great experiment on whether requiring people coming into the state to test negative for the coronavirus within 72 hours before their arrival will a) keep the spread of the virus in Hawaii to a level of infections, hospitalizations and deaths that the state is OK with, and b) bring back tourism at a level high enough to revive and sustain hotel jobs, stores, restaurants and airlines.

Despite the mumbled assurances of Gov. David Ige that the state is ready to do this thing, the whole endeavor smells risky.

The pre-travel testing plan is better than nothing. It is better than taking people’s temperature at the airport (because, as every mom knows, a dose of Tylenol can bring down a fever in 30 minutes.)

But it is nowhere near foolproof. An incoming passenger could take a COVID-19 test, get a negative result, and spend the next three days going to maskless parties, running around town kissing people goodbye, or doing any number of risky things before getting on the plane asymptomatic but infected with the virus.

The chance of the virus riding in with a pre-tested passenger might be small, but it’s not zero. Remember when the goal used to be zero?  Well, now we’re at the point where a total of 100 or more new cases a day isn’t supposed to scare anyone because we’ve decided we have to get back to business as usual. Reality didn’t change, but perception sure did.

Hawaii Govenor David Ige gestures as he gives a media briefing Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2020 in Honolulu, HI. The briefing was held to unveil new COVID-19 safety measures the state plans to implement upon re-opening to travelers on October 15th. (Ronen Zilberman photo Civil Beat)
Gov. David Ige talks about the state’s pre-travel testing program. Starting Thursday, travelers with certain negative COVID-19 tests will be able to bypass Hawaii’s 14-day quarantine. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2020

The perception of a mandatory 14-day quarantine for incoming passengers has sure changed, at least from the governor’s point of view. When Ige instituted a mandatory quarantine for all incoming passengers, we were meant to believe that it was a reasonable, effective approach to keeping more cases of the virus at bay. In reality, it was merely a suggestion to visitors and almost impossible to widely enforce.

Lt. Gov Josh Green said last week, regarding Kauai County’s plan to have visitors sit in their hotel for 72 hours and then get a second negative COVID-19 test before they could go run free on the island, that it wasn’t going to work because no one would come to Hawaii to sit in quarantine for three or four days.

No kidding.

From the beginning, Hawaii’s response to the pandemic has been marked by half-measures, hopeful thinking, and plans that nobody bothered to think through all the way to the real-life details.

Here we are again. Nobody knew the details of Ige’s plans for this big tourism reopening until Tuesday afternoon­, not quite the 11th hour, but still, pretty last-minute. He called it “comprehensive” and “the most advanced in the nation” despite it being cobbled together after intense pressure and criticism from the neighbor islands, and despite some details still in the “we’re in discussions” phase.

The state’s 14-day mandatory quarantine for travelers has been difficult to widely enforce. Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat/2020

At this point, Ige’s abysmal leadership is no surprise to anyone. The neighbor island mayors have gotten to the point where they don’t even attempt to hide the fact that they just try to work around him, like water flowing around a rock blocking the stream.

At least now we know it is possible to take neighbor island trips to Kauai and Maui and avoid quarantine with a pre-travel negative COVID-19 test. Now we know Mayor Harry Kim, who is on his way out, is still a stubborn badass who doesn’t like anybody telling him what to do.

There is an undeniable risk that “Safe Travels Hawaii” will all fall apart. Nobody is hoping for that, but the anxiety is palpable. Tourists could stay away in droves. COVID-19 could pack a big rolling suitcase and island-hop. Even if it all works out, it might not work out at a level that is sustainable.

Pandemic unemployment hasn’t just hit Hawaii, and vacation money is no longer burning a hole in people’s pockets. We might be right back to couch surfers and high-end vacation rentals, those visitors who eschew hotel rooms and Waikiki shops and restaurants. The idea of a second test upon arrival has turned into a screening available for those who volunteer. Volunteering for a nose swab sounds even less likely than quarantining inside a hotel room.

As Hawaii Tourism Authority President and CEO John DeFries put it, “This is an imperfect scenario being executed by imperfect people who have one thing in common – aloha for this state.”

OK, when he said it, it sounded better than looking at those words in print. He made it sound brave, not iffy. But so much of “reopening” to tourism is iffy, and when pressed on this point, everyone in charge goes back to the same old talking point: wear a mask.

That’s all we’ve got, two layers of cotton with elastic ear straps. Not our leaders. Not a medical miracle. Not a sturdy plan in place. Just wear your little mask and hope for the best.

Read this next:

VIRUS TRACKER -- Oct. 14: 101 New COVID-19 Cases In Hawaii

Local reporting when you need it most

Support timely, accurate, independent journalism.

Honolulu Civil Beat is a nonprofit organization, and your donation helps us produce local reporting that serves all of Hawaii.


About the Author

Lee Cataluna

Lee Cataluna is a columnist for Civil Beat. You can reach her by email at lcataluna@civilbeat.org

Latest Comments (0)

Now from experience (continued)  Part 2 ... Counting on that alliance between United Airlines and GoHealth (who does their in-airport rapid testing), good luck with that.  One, this is your last chance option.  Two, it is only offered in San Francisco (SFO).  Three, swarms of visitors (who have been able to plan their trip) will take all of the available appointments 4 days out.  I know their website says you can schedule 7 days in advance, I gotta call BS on that one, it just isn't true.  Meaning you are very likely to end up in 2 week quarantine no matter how hard you try to not to.  And I can tell you, quarantine s*cks (hope that last word gets accepted).  Whether one can be released from quarantine early by being tested here is unknown.  It may just be something they tell folks in order to avoid a scene (you know, a politely spoken lie).

BumbleBall · 2 years ago

Now from experience.   Part 1 .... Testing is not as rampant on the mainland as it is here.  Most of the Hawaii "accepted" tests can be found on the west coast only.   If you are coming to the Big Island, you cannot take the second test needed to avoid quarantine if you did not get the first one.  Not every one is coming to Hawaii from a big city.  If you have the opportunity, these things need to be planned in advance.  Meaning if you suddenly need to go to the mainland for something like a funeral (they don't wait weeks on these things there (funny that), you get word, you go or you miss out on last chances with your loved ones). 

BumbleBall · 2 years ago

I view it quite simply like this: there is no such thing as eliminating risk in the world, no matter what you do.  As for Corona, zero is not a logical conclusion, or goal and never should have been.  That's pure politics, conjecture and stupidity that Ige was attempting to sell to the public.  The only way that would be attainable would be a complete lockdown forever.  Dealing with the reality that people need to live, that the world revolves around a capitalist economy and we are all tied to that, aside from possibly a few hermits living off the grid with no debt or financial obligations, opening up our state is long overdue.  With that being said, no one can force you to go to Waikiki, or out to dinner, a movie, or a gym.  Everyone has a choice and if you don't agree with reopening tourism, or continue to live in fear, then by all means continue to isolate and quarantine yourself until you feel safe to come out into the world.  It's really simple.  For everyone else, use a mask and follow all the protocols that have been hammered into your heads for the past 7 months.  Take risks you are personally comfortable with and no more. 

wailani1961 · 2 years ago

Join the conversation


IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email news@civilbeat.org to submit an idea.


You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.