Gov. David Ige’s change to Hawaii’s pre-travel COVID-19 testing program has caused an outcry among business and political leaders who say Ige made the change abruptly without talking to tourism industry executives, based on a small number of infected travelers who slipped through the cracks.

The change, announced during a news conference on Thursday, means people flying into Hawaii must have a negative COVID-19 test upon arrival to bypass the state’s required 14-day quarantine.

The previous policy, which launched Oct. 15, let travelers who hadn’t gotten test results upon arrival go into quarantine but get out when the negative test result came in. Now, in brief, travelers must have a negative test result before they depart for Hawaii or they’ll be stuck in quarantine in the islands for two weeks, even if the test indicates they don’t have COVID-19 when the result arrives.

Masked Hawaiian Airlines stewardess cruises through the cabin which feature 3 people in the row due to COVID-19 pandemic. 2020
Gov. Ige’s tweak of the pre-travel testing program has drawn criticism from business and political leaders. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The order applies to visitors and returning residents.

Members of the Hawaii House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness used Monday’s bi-monthly meeting to criticize Ige’s decision, with several chief executives beyond the tourism industry weighing in, along with Hawaii House Speaker Scott Saiki.

“We have grave concerns,” said Mufi Hannemann, a former Honolulu Mayor who now heads the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, a tourism industry group. Asked by Saiki if the Ige administration had talked to industry leaders before announcing the change, Hannemann said he had met with leading executives and, “No one indicated they had been consulted.”

Ige is normally known as a methodical decision-maker who at times has been criticized for his consensus-driven approach. Saiki said the latest move – done with what seemed like no input from key leaders – was a bad one.

“This doesn’t serve the public very well,” Saiki said.

Ige on Monday issued a statement responding to the criticism, saying the change was designed to protect residents, with cases rising in other locales and the holidays bringing greater numbers of travelers.

“While only a handful of visitors receive a positive test each day following their arrival, it was enough to compel us to make the policy change, especially as more people travel to Hawaiʻi to celebrate the holidays,” Ige said in the statement. “We must take every precaution to ensure the safety of our community, and that our hospitals have the capacity to care for those in need of treatment.”

Peter Ingram, president and chief executive of Hawaiian Airlines, told a state House COVID-19 committee that Gov. David Ige’s order makes a tight window even tighter. Screenshot: Olelo/2020

As of last week, about 270,000 people had traveled under Hawaii’s Safe Travels program, as the testing regime is called. Of those, 44 arrived with a test pending that later turned out positive.

“It’s not a large number, but it’s enough to change the policy,” Ige said on Thursday.

But on Monday, Ray Vara, the chief executive of the island hospital giant Hawaii Pacific Health, said that shouldn’t be enough to change the policy. While public health and safety come first, Vara said, Hawaii should be willing to entertain sensible risks to benefit the economy.

Just 44 of 270,000 is “a very, very, very small percentage,” Vara said.

Peter Ho, chairman, president and chief executive of Bank of Hawaii, said changing the rule just as the economy is showing glimmers of recovery, isn’t helpful.

“Things are tough enough right now,” he said.

Also on hand was Peter Ingram, president and chief executive of Hawaiian Airlines, the state’s dominant air carrier and previously Hawaii’s largest employer until Ige’s initial quarantine order shut down travel to Hawaii and forced the company to cut thousands of workers.

UHERO data show passenger counts rising steadily since Hawaii’s Safe Travels program went into effect on Oct. 15. UHERO’s executive director, Carl Bonham, said counts will level off after Thanksgiving and as COVID-19 case counts rise in key Hawaii markets. UHERO

Ingram noted the Safe Travels program allows a “narrow window” for travelers. They must take the test no sooner than 72 hours before departure. And, now, they must have a result in hand before departing for Hawaii.

The state has cut deals with numerous laboratories and other entities, including pharmacies like Walgreens and CVS, to give travelers access to tests. Hawaiian Airlines, for instance, is one of Hawaii’s “trusted partners.”

Hawaiian, in turn, has forged partnerships with private labs to make sure passengers can get results within the 72-hour window. This includes newly announced drive-thru and walk-up test sites for Hawaiian Airlines passengers traveling from Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Portland and Seattle, as well as one that opened in October in San Francisco.

“Our dedicated testing locations guarantee guests will receive results within 36 hours of being tested, so they can meet the state’s requirements and focus on enjoying safe travel,” Avi Mannis, Hawaiian’s senior vice president of marketing, said in a statement released Tuesday.

Still, with cases surging in the continental U.S. and the demand for tests strained, there’s a growing concern that some trusted partners will be overwhelmed.

Maj. Gen. Ken Hara, who helps lead the Ige Administration’s response team as head of the Hawaii National Guard, said CVS can no longer guarantee results within 72 hours. Hara, who is also a member of the House COVID-19 committee, said he understood Ige made the decision to change the test policy after talking to the island mayors and Department of Health Director Libby Char.

The changed policy comes as the program generally seems to be successfully keeping a lid on case counts, even as Hawaii opens to tourists. Although there has been a rise and fall in cases in the last five weeks since the program started, the seven-day moving average on Monday was 96 compared with 91 on Oct. 15, when Safe Travels started, according to the Hawaii Data Collaborative. The Hawaii Department of Health reported 114 new cases on Monday.

Meanwhile, the state’s economy has shown a rebound, said Carl Bonham, executive director of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization. Hawaii has seen a steady flow of passenger arrivals, with about 5,000-8,000 per day since the Safe Travels program went into effect. That’s small compared to the 30,000 arrivals per day before COVID-19.

Unemployment Rates Improving

With Thanksgiving coming up, arrivals jumped to more than 12,000 on Saturday, more than 10,000 of them visitors, according to UHERO and Data Collaborative numbers. As tourism has come back, so have jobs.

Hawaii’s unemployment rate was at 14.2% in October, down from just under 24% in April, according to UHERO data. That rate would have been even lower, Bonham said, except some 28,000 workers, who previously were not looking for jobs, came back to the workforce.

“It has done exactly what people thought it would do,” Bonham said.

Dr. Mark Mugiishi, chief executive of HMSA, the state’s largest health insurer, likened the situation to a basketball game plan that’s working. Changing it now makes no sense, he said.

“Usually when you’re winning the game by a lot, that’s not usually time to change the rules,” said Mugiishi, who also coached basketball at Iolani School.

“These are the kinds of decisions that really annoy the public,” Bonham said.

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