As Hawaii eases COVID-19 restrictions on tourists and returning residents with its pre-travel testing program, military commanders are continuing to approach incoming troops with caution.
The state is allowing travelers with negative test results from a state-approved provider to forgo an otherwise mandatory 14-day quarantine, but that doesn’t apply to service members.
Most military employed civilians and contracted workers are also held to a full quarantine regardless of test results.
Military spouses and children are allowed to opt out of the quarantine if they test negative under the Safe Travels program.
“They could do the pre-test like any other person coming into Hawaii, but they’re highly encouraged to follow the 14 days,” U.S. Pacific Fleet Spokesman Cmdr. Myers Vasquez said in a telephone interview.
At Marine Corps Base Hawaii commanders have taken it an extra step. Capt. Eric Abrams, a spokesman for the installation, said that anyone living on base — Marine or civilian — falls under the full quarantine mandate. There’s a partial exception for contractors allowing them to go to and from work sites.
The program allowing quarantine-free travel with a negative test began on Oct. 15 for people traveling from the mainland and Alaska and was expanded to include travelers from Japan on Nov. 6.
Gov. David Ige is looking to include people flying in from Canada, China, South Korea, Taiwan and New Zealand.
The state of Hawaii previously offered a quarantine exemption to military personnel arriving in Hawaii on orders, but U.S. Indo-Pacific Command already had orders for troops to continue quarantines — in effect overriding the state’s exemption.
The pandemic has highlighted the sometimes fraught relationship between the military and Hawaii residents.
While local commanders reported infection rates to the public in March when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, the Pentagon soon ordered bases to keep local numbers secret.
Military infection rates are shared with Hawaii health officials but not the public despite the fact that those numbers are released in Guam, Japan and Korea.
The Pentagon’s policy of secrecy around the numbers, and a series of state-issued exemptions for military personnel and families led to confusion and controversy over the summer.
It began on May 29 when Hawaii National Guard Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, who is leading the state’s COVID-19 response as the head of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, issued a memo stating that military-affiliated individuals entering the state on orders were exempt from the quarantine.
State officials later told Civil Beat Hara issued the exemption to accommodate a request from Coast Guard commanders.
While the other service branches house most of their dependents on or near large bases on Oahu, some Coast Guardsmen and their families find themselves assigned to more remote facilities on neighbor islands where food and pharmacy delivery services may be limited or unavailable.
Coast Guard commanders issued a “modified restriction of movement” order that allowed them to get essential items as long as they wore masks and practiced distancing, under the expectation they would return to their lodgings immediately.
But Army and Navy leaders who had not requested an exemption were caught off guard and maintained quarantine orders for new arrivals, worried an exemption would create the perception of special treatment.
In an Aug. 16 memo obtained by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, INDOPACOM commander Adm. Phil Davidson told senior leaders that “we have asked the state to remove the quarantine exemption for military family members to align with our measures already in place.”
The next day, Ige and Hara announced that they were rescinding the quarantine exemption for military family members.
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Kevin Knodell covers the military and veterans in Hawaii and the greater Pacific for Civil Beat as a corps member for Report For America, a national nonprofit that places journalists in local newsrooms.