When travelers returned to Hawaii, so did money and jobs. But some of them brought unwelcome visitors with them — the coronavirus.
That’s what the different data from the first six weeks of Hawaii’s Safe Travels pre-arrival testing program, which allows visitors with negative COVID-19 test results to bypass quarantine, show.
Travel-related cases made up just a small portion of statewide totals — 14% in November — but Kauai, Maui and Hawaii counties saw double-digit spikes that were largely blamed on travel-related cases.
When travel is a key factor in the spread of COVID-19, but the state’s economic health relies on people traveling here, the stakes are much higher.
That has exposed a divide between state leaders and other proponents of easing travel restrictions, and many on the neighboring islands advocating for stricter measures, particularly Kauai, which has temporarily opted out of the program starting Dec. 2.
Lt. Gov. Josh Green, who runs the program, says it has been a success, helping revitalize the economy while keeping new COVID-19 cases at a minimum. “We’ve exceeded our expectations,” he said in an interview.
Here’s what the data says:
Safe Travels data, which can now be browsed on a web dashboard, shows that between Oct. 15 and Nov. 30, more than 443,000 people came to Hawaii, about 69% with negative COVID-19 tests that allowed them to skip the quarantine.
Total travelers: 443,629 (68.5%)
Travelers here for pleasure/vacation: 191,596 (43.1%)
Exempt through negative COVID-19 Test: 304,148
Statewide new cases: 4,043
Travel-related (resident & non-resident): 355 (8.7%)
Source: Safe Travels, Department of Health
Nearly 191,000 of the arrivals indicated they were coming for pleasure or vacation. The largest chunk — 42% — of arrivals were to Honolulu. Most of them are still coming from the United States, particularly from the West. There were only about 1,600 visitors arriving from Tokyo during that timeframe.
State health authorities, meanwhile, have continued to report relatively low daily case numbers, with a peak of 163 on Nov. 21.
Still, the increase prompted alarm in some camps, prompting two major policy changes: The state is no longer allowing late test results from travelers seeking to bypass quarantine, and Kauai has temporarily opted out of the testing program, insisting that nearly all visitors quarantine for 14 days.
“All the changes are happening around a global approach to keep cases low to make sure people can survive so we can finally emerge from COVID with fewest casualties,” Green said. That is until a vaccine can be widely used to provide a “new layer of security.”
“The key is balance,” said Carl Bonham, executive director of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization. It’s not acceptable to ignore the risk of contracting COVID-19, nor the damage of extended unemployment, he added.
But balance is hard to achieve when the situation is volatile — with the virus wreaking havoc in most of the continental United States where more than 275,000 people have died from the disease.
“Things have changed and they’ll keep changing,” Bonham said. “They’ll be going up and down and up and down until a vaccine is widely in use. We’ll be dealing with the uncertainty.”
While officials have struggled to find a unified approach, causing confusion among travelers, the data so far show promising economic gains, including 28,000 people returning to the workforce in October compared with the previous month. The unemployment rate has also declined.
“In many ways, things have gotten quite a bit better,” Bonham, the UHERO director who also serves on the House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness, said.
UHERO’s own Economic Pulse Index, which factors in indicators like job openings, small business revenue, restaurant reservations and unemployment insurance claims, shows that the index has climbed from 32 on Oct. 3 to 44 on Nov. 21 — the highest it’s been since March 21.
The Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism estimated that visitors will spend an average of about $6 million a day during the pandemic. That means between Oct. 15 and Nov. 30, which is 47 days, the projected visitor spending is $282 million.
The health department’s data shows that travelers didn’t make up a huge portion of new COVID-19 cases between Oct. 15 and Nov. 30 statewide — just 14% in November, which policymakers are touting as a success.
But the biggest share of travelers went to Honolulu, where there was already the highest number of cases and rate of transmission.
That means travel-related cases made a much bigger impact on neighbor islands, especially Kauai, where there were significantly fewer cases to begin with.
“Kauai is a microcosm where we can see some of the impact of travel,” said Dr. Janet Berreman, district health officer for Kauai for the Hawaii Department of Health. “The baseline was basically zero.”
The Garden Isle’s caseload has ballooned since the program started. The health department’s data shows it had all of three cases in September, which increased to six in October, then 49 in November, 35 of which were identified thus far as travel-related.
Mayor Derek Kawakami is quoted citing a higher case count — 70, 57 of which he says were linked to travel — in justifying his request for the moratorium. Kauai County independently tracks and maintains community- and travel-related spread data on its website, and includes categories that DOH does not.
The impact is most apparent for Kauai County, but Maui and Hawaii counties both saw sharp increases in the percentage of travel-related cases in November.
Maui, for instance, had 41 such cases, or 37%, out of 111 cases where risk factors are known. In the month prior, there were just six. Sixty-eight out of 282 Hawaii County cases in November where risk factors are known were travel-related, versus just 16 out of 544 in October.
Still, the predominant mode of COVID-19 transmission in Hawaii remains community spread, Berreman of DOH said. The number one message is always to wear a mask, wash hands and social distance.
“But the constant influx of new cases creates an added challenge,” she added.
All it takes is for one seed to take root in the community, she said. With another holiday just around the corner, now is the time to be especially vigilant, even though Hawaii remains relatively stable virus-wise.
“I think that we have reason for optimism,” she said. “At the same time, I think it would be a mistake for us to drastically let our guard down.”
There needs to be more protection for workers in the tourism industry, including increased clarity and promotion about the state’s mask mandate to visitors, said Angela Keen, an administrator with the Hawaii Quarantine Kapu Breakers, a community-based online group that helps investigate and lobby for pandemic-related matters.
“These workers are inevitably exposed to COVID-19,” she said.
As much as they want to go back to work, they are scared for themselves and their families, she said she’s heard from people. And without the complete buy-in from workers in the industry, tourism can’t revive to its full extent, she added.
To do that, the state will have to do a better job educating visitors, she said. “Without preparing visitors with the rules and regulations, they’re going to have a negative experience and we don’t want that either,” she said.
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