Scott McMurren knows as much as anyone about Alaska’s travel market. For more than 20 years, the Anchorage-based travel writer has published the Alaska Travelgram, a weekly blog with information and deals about visiting America’s Last Frontier.

As McMurren sees it, Alaska’s policy of requiring tourists to take two COVID-19 tests – something some Hawaii’s neighbor-island mayors are calling for – has had mixed results. On one hand, he says, the two-test policy has probably prevented visitors from spreading virus; on the other hand, it hasn’t prevented disease from spreading out of control – thanks to residents.

“We have rampant uncontrolled community spread” in Anchorage, McMurren said. “And honestly travel, while it’s still a concern, it’s not the predominant cause.”

Alaska Airlines taxis to gate after landing framed by two tails of Hawaiian Airlines aircraft at Daniel Inouye International Airport.
Even with a two-test regime to screen tourists for COVID-19 Anchorage, Alaska, still is seeing a spread of coronavirus. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Anchorage, which has the bulk of Alaska’s cases, has had an average of 87 new cases a day for the past three days, according to the state health department. That’s more than the 73 on average on Oahu over the past week, and Anchorage’s population of about 290,000 is less than a third the size of Oahu.

“The horse is out of the barn,” McMurren said.

With Alaska’s experience showing that even a two-test regime for travelers won’t stop COVID-19 from spreading in a community, local Hawaii leaders are pushing back even harder on a single test plan, which is what Gov. David Ige’s administration is moving forward with.

The governor’s pre-travel program would open Hawaii to tourists who take one test 72 hours before leaving for Hawaii. Travelers who can show proof they tested negative within the three-day window can skip a 14-day quarantine.

While Ige’s plan is scheduled to commence on Oct. 15, Hawaii’s neighbor island mayors — Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami,  Maui Mayor Michael Victorino and Big Island Mayor Harry Kim – have called for two tests.

“I just don’t think we should take the risk with one COVID-19 test taken up to three days before traveling,” Kim said on Tuesday. “There are so many variables involved in a pre-travel test that could make the tests unreliable; we have to have a second test upon arrival in Hawaii.”

The number of potential positive cases being introduced to the community would pose unacceptable risk, Kim said.

Approximately 2,000 people are flying into Hawaii every day now, with officials estimating that would jump to 5,000 arrivals a day once the one-test policy goes into effect.

Kim said he and the other three mayors on Tuesday discussed a two-test policy for out-of-state visitors.

Honolulu City Councilman Tommy Waters, who represents Waikiki, also wants two tests.

“Just using common sense, two tests are better than one,” Waters told Civil Beat. “Why not do a second test if we can?”

A major question is how to do it.

“We need time to work out the logistics of administering a second test, but it will be worth it,” Kim said on Tuesday. He said he expects a decision this week.

In Alaska’s case, non-residents visiting the state are expected to take a test 72 hours before departure and upload the negative result into an app, similar to what Ige’s COVID-19 Liaison, Lt. Gov. Josh Green, described in a presentation last week. Travelers who don’t have results back when they arrive in Alaska have to stay quarantined until the results come in, which is similar to Hawaii’s plan.

‘Behavior Is The X-Factor’

In Alaska, the difference is that travelers who stay longer than a week have to take a second test seven to 14 days after arrival. Until visitors have taken the test, they’re required to practice “strict social distancing.”

Alaska Travelgram publisher Scott McMurren says visitors to Alaska are allowed to enjoy outdoor activities once they arrive but must still take a second COVID-19 test. Screenshot

As McMurren sees it, the two-test policy is good if visitors follow it. The problem is there’s not much enforcement that he sees. Compliance is largely up to the visitors.

“Whether they went to a toga party when they got here, who knows?” he said. “People’s behavior is the X-Factor.”

Green agrees. He said testing can mitigate risk but not stop the spread of the virus. Stopping the spread depends on people following safe practices.

“Testing is not prevention,” he said. “Mask wearing and social distancing is prevention.”

In Green’s view, it doesn’t make sense to compare Hawaii to Alaska because the states are much different. Unlike Hawaii, Green says Alaska is a solidly Republican “live free or die” state where there’s not even state-level policy in basics like mask-wearing.

“The only similarity is that we are the only states that require a test, although ours is with enforced quarantine,” said Green, an outspoken advocate of Hawaii’s one-test policy who also has been largely in charge of crafting and implementing it.

McMurren says Hawaii officials are already protecting residents by making travelers too scared to visit the islands.

He said he’s started advising people against going to Hawaii because of uncertainty about the reopening.

“I have friends who are making plans right now,” he said. “But I told them it could all go south.”

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author