LIHUE, Kauai — With less than 72 hours to go before tourists start arriving under Hawaii’s new COVID-19 test protocol, the state’s process of figuring out how to proceed seemed more like a demolition derby than an organized policy review.
On Monday, officials for all three neighbor island counties expressed bewilderment with the failure of Gov. David Ige to clarify the status of Thursday’s reopening.
The uncertainty was exacerbated by remarks at Monday’s 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 “What we’re hearing is continued confusion. No one knows exactly what the rules are.”
Late in the afternoon, Janet Snyder, a spokeswoman for Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim said there had been no additional clarification, even after Ige held a virtual meeting with the state’s four mayors. “The situation is very fluid,” she said. “Stay tuned.”
In a morning interview with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s online “Spotlight” program, Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami reviewed the status of a request sent to Ige last week for Kauai to introduce a voluntary second test program. But Kawakami said Ige insisted that the county absorb the costs of such a program and not require visitors to pay for the additional, voluntary test.
“That made it very hard for me to agree,” Kawakami said. “It’s never been a commitment we as a county have made.”
He said Kauai was not in a position to underwrite the costs of the second tests. The decision from Ige threatened to create inequities between the ability of Kauai residents to be tested and availability of testing to tourists in a voluntary program.
Last week, Dr. Lee Evslin, an organizer of the ad hoc Kauai COVID-19 Discussion Group, said Ige’s system of requiring just a single test within three days of arrival in Hawaii would allow an average of one case per 1,000 tourists arriving on Kauai to evade detection.
Kauai, as of Monday, has only recorded 59 total cases since the pandemic began.
At an afternoon Facebook news conference, Sandy Baz, Maui County’s managing director, said Ige had given “verbal permission” for quarantine-free travel for residents between Maui, Molokai and Lanai. But Baz said Ige had still not followed up with formal confirmation.
“We’re also working with the other county mayors on another test,” Baz said.
Asked why the situation with less than 72 hours to go before visitors who may test out of quarantine set to arrive is still so fluid, Baz said, “We have discussed with the governor the idea that there should be some consistency between counties.”
At the COVID committee meeting, the overarching message was unmistakable: With just three days before Hawaii is set to open to tourists, it is baffling that testing standards and quarantine regulation policies — especially relating to interisland travel by residents — are not yet final.
Maj. Gen. Ken Hara, commanding officer of the Hawaii National Guard, noted that, as of Monday morning, only Hawaii County had firm plans to require a second test, although there appeared to be some doubt whether Ige had formally granted that permission as opposed to verbal authorization.
Ige’s office did not respond to questions from Civil Beat Monday about why Ige had rejected Kauai County’s second test proposal but agreed to the Big Island’s.
On Tuesday, Ige spokeswoman Cindy McMillan emailed: “We don’t have any new information to share at this time.”
The confusion extended to Maui, according to Brian Perry, a spokesman for Mayor Mike Victorino.
“Mayor Victorino has spoken for months about considering and wanting to do a second test,” Perry said, “but Maui County’s request to do so was denied by Gov. Ige, along with Kauai’s.”
The neighbor island confusion “doesn’t send a very positive message,” said House Speaker Scott Saiki, chair of the COVID-19 committee. “That’s why it’s important to have statewide standards in place.”
Bonham said that projections for initial tourism arrival volumes suggest that uncertainty and inconsistency will not have an immediate, dramatic effect starting Thursday. “It’s not showing that there’s going to be some mad dash to Hawaii on Oct. 15,” he said.
At Hawaiian Airlines, a spokesman for the airlines, Alex De Silva, said, “We’ve seen a pick-up in the pace of bookings since the state announced it would start a pre-travel COVID-19 testing program on Oct. 15.
“It is hard for us to forecast with any degree of certainty how many travelers we’re likely to see in late October or in November because the quarantine has suppressed so much of the demand.”
He said consumer confusion and uncertainty about policies regarding testing and quarantines has created a higher than normal rate of last-minute bookings. He said Hawaiian’s passenger capacity has only risen 26%.
Still, De Silva said, “We don’t anticipate a huge surge of visitor arrivals.”
Dr. Mark Mugiishi, CEO of Hawaii Medical Service Association, the state’s largest health insurer, said ruefully, “Obviously, it’s not ideal that we don’t know yet” about the specifics of many of the rules on testing, intrastate travel with a test or without quarantine and even how the governor will formally adjudicate various requests by mayors concerning additional testing.
Dr. Lorrin Pang, Maui County’s district health officer, said it is well recognized that the mainland world from which many tourists will come “has plenty of cases, but we kind of have to open up to business again.”
He said that, like Kauai and Hawaii counties, Maui’s residents work in the visitor industry in huge numbers. This makes it even more important, he said, for those workers — but, just as important, their spouses, significant others and family members — to continue to take common sense precautions like mask wearing, hand washing and social distancing.
Pang acknowledged that local residents may react negatively — at least at first — to high volumes of tourists returning to Hawaii. Visitors, he said, “have all kinds of weird attitudes.
“Try to be nice and understanding. Some will be very cooperative. With the others, don’t ostracize them. Don’t give them stink eye. We will focus on those.”
Baz also introduced a four-tier system Maui County intends to use to determine if restrictions on movement and other activities have to be reintroduced in response to a breakout of COVID-19.
The four tiers range from few restrictions to a near complete lockdown, depending on case occurrence rates. But in another manifestation of inconsistencies between counties, it appeared that the trigger levels for moving from one tier of restriction to another were slightly different from Kauai’s.
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