A committee of Hawaii political, business and medical leaders is trying to maintain unified support for the state’s Safe Travels program amid persistent opposition from critics, the island of Kauai’s defection from the program and repeated recent changes by Gov. David Ige.
The House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness invited the state’s mayors and Ige to a special meeting on Monday, days after Kauai announced it was opting out of Hawaii’s program. The mayors showed up, while Ige declined to participate, opting instead to do a live interview on a Facebook show about Hawaii’s response to the pandemic.
Known as the Safe Travels program, Hawaii’s travel protocols are meant to lessen the spread of COVID-19 as Hawaii opens to out-of-state travel. Members of the House committee on Monday emphasized that the program is succeeding: it is letting the state open to more travelers and boosting the economy while keeping COVID-19 cases in check.
Since the program began on Oct. 15, the seven-day average of new cases statewide has remained roughly the same — hovering around 100 — while Hawaii has allowed more than 270,000 travelers to come to Hawaii. Thousands of hospitality jobs have come back.
Still, Scott Saiki, the Hawaii House Speaker who co-chairs the committee, said he’s concerned that Hawaii’s tourism plan could splinter, with each island imposing separate protocols.
“Absolutely,” Saiki said when asked if he feared the state becoming fragmented. “My concern is that we have a statewide economy, and when one component opts out, it will cause disruption.”
The general rule in Hawaii, imposed by an executive order, is that all out-of-state air travelers, including returning residents and tourists, must quarantine for 14 days upon arrival.
But the Safe Travels program carves out an exception for travelers who obtain a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of departing for Hawaii. Those travelers can sidestep the 14-day quarantine, but Ige recently changed the rule to mandate that the negative test must be in hand before landing in Hawaii.
The question, which has been continually discussed since before the program launched, is whether one test is adequate to ensure people don’t bring COVID-19 into Hawaii. Big Island Mayor Harry Kim opted to participate in the state’s program but required travelers to take a second test upon arrival from the beginning.
Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami last week chose to opt out entirely, effective Wednesday.
“The unprecedented surge of COVID-19 cases on the mainland and the rise in community spread on Kauai are of significant concern for the Garden Isle,” Ige said in a news release announcing Kauai’s move, the day after Thanksgiving. “We must protect Kauai residents and visitors and ensure that Kauai’s hospitals do not become overwhelmed.”
Ige described the change as temporary, but it was not clear when Kauai will rejoin the program.
During Monday’s committee meeting, Kawakami said the state’s program was a success but that a one-size-fits-all program doesn’t work for Hawaii. Before the state opening to tourists, he said, Kauai had had 61 cases of COVID-19. In the past six weeks, he said, Kauai has had 70 cases, including 57 travel-related ones.
Although Kawakami said the program didn’t work for Kauai, he said, “We agree that Safe Travels Hawaii has absolutely worked in general for the state.”
Still, it appears there’s really nothing holding the program in place – nothing keeping the various islands on board if mayors want to opt out, or assuring consistency for travelers or the businesses that rely on them.
By blessing Kauai’s departure from Safe Travels, Ige indicated he’ll let each island go its own way.
Against that backdrop, Saiki said the committee hopes to build a consensus among the mayors. At the same time, Saiki called on Ige to maintain consistency.
“We don’t want him to be reacting whenever a concern is raised by one of the counties,” Saiki said. “He needs to be more decisive.”
Kauai’s defection came little more than a week after Ige abruptly changed the policy altogether, sending tremors through the tourism industry. That change, announced during a news conference on Nov. 19, means people flying into Hawaii must have a negative COVID-19 test upon arrival to bypass the state’s required 14-day quarantine.
“By any measure, the first month of Hawaii’s Safe Travel pre-arrival testing program was an unqualified success.” – House COVID-19 committee report
The prior policy let travelers who hadn’t gotten test results upon landing go into quarantine but get out when the negative test result came in.
Part of Monday’s House committee meeting was devoted to offering an alternative to the new policy, which tourism executives say has led to a rash of travel cancellations. Members of the committee drafted a paper with an overarching theme: the program was working; why change it?
“By any measure, the first month of Hawaii’s Safe Travel pre-arrival testing program was an unqualified success,” said the paper, which was co-authored by the subcommittees on public health and strategy and communications.
Between mid-October and late November, the paper says, the trends have been positive: the number of new cases per day dropped from 96.7 to 94.6, the test positivity rate from 2.8 to 2.0, the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients from 103 to 60 and the percent of occupied ICU beds from 53% to 46%.
Meanwhile, economic activity has rebounded with more than 28,000 workers returning to the labor force and about 230,000 visitors arriving in the islands compared with about 31,000 in the six weeks before the program began.
The committee’s report asks Ige to again modify the Safe Travels program to allow travelers who have complied with the 72 hour pre-arrival testing requirement but not gotten the test result upon landing in Hawaii to avoid the 14-day quarantine by taking a rapid test upon arrival in Hawaii and, if they test negative, get out of quarantine if the original test also is negative.
Still, for some, the program is a failure.
Dr. Darragh O’Carroll, a Hawaii emergency medicine doctor, writes in a recent essay being widely circulated by his supporters that Hawaii has underestimated the prevalence of COVID-19 among travelers. He is calling for two tests combined with a period of quarantine after arrival.
The Hawaii Department of Health’s Dr. Janet Berreman, who serves as a district health officer for Kauai, has gone further, calling for the state to halt Safe Travels for the month of December and to reinstate the 14-day quarantine, regardless of whether people take tests.
Mark Mugiishi, the chief executive of HMSA who also is a member of the House committee, said that the issue may come down to how much risk a community is willing to endure to restart the economy and how capable officials are in managing the situation.
The numbers of cases Kauai’s mayor cited – 57 travel-related and 30 from visitors — amounts to fewer than one per day since the travel program started. For some mayors, Mugiishi said, that would be manageable.
“If the answer is, ‘Yes I can handle it,’ then 30 cases shouldn’t frighten you,” Mugiishi said.