Kauai County’s requirement that tourists be tested for COVID-19 for a second time before they are free to roam the Garden Island would be preempted under a bill that won preliminary approval from two House committees on Tuesday.

House Bill 1286 was introduced by House Speaker Scott Saiki, and is backed by hoteliers and other players in the tourism industry. They say Hawaii’s patchwork of testing and quarantine protocols is confusing for would-be tourists, and is discouraging people from coming here.

But critics of Saiki’s bill said forcing Kauai to relax the extra testing requirement is a terrible idea at a time when the state is threatened by new variants of the coronavirus. Nearly 150 Kauai residents and others submitted testimony opposing the measure.

Lee Evslin, a retired physician and former CEO of Wilcox Medical Center, said he is particularly concerned by the pandemic news over the past week.

“The experts around the country and around the world for that matter are saying, ‘Don’t loosen up right now. The variants are out there,’” he said.

Kauai with its two-test protocol has one of the lowest COVID-19 infection rates in the nation, and wants to keep it that way. Flickr: Marc Tarlock

“If we force this kind of complete compliance with Safe Travels with each of the counties, we do put the counties certainly at greater risk,” Evslin said. “What the experts are essentially saying is that we’re either in the eye of the storm, or we really are in the recovery mode, and we don’t know yet if we are or not.”

Under a protocol proposed by the county and authorized by Gov. David Ige, Kauai now requires visitors to test negative for the coronavirus before they arrive on the island, and then remain in quarantine in a “resort bubble” for 72 hours before undergoing a second test.

The island has had far fewer infections throughout the pandemic than the more populated Maui, Oahu and Hawaii islands, and Kauai residents want to keep it that way.

Kauai County Councilwoman Felicia Cowden pointed out that Kauai has some of the lowest infection rates in the nation, and said the state should be setting minimum requirements for testing and quarantine rather than maximums.

“Kauai’s COVID-19 safety levels are the envy of the world, and it is attracting more cautious and longer-term guests, even new residents,” she said in written testimony. She added that “we do not have the capacity to manage the potential impacts of a surge in cases.”

“I very humbly ask, please do not disempower the counties,” she told the House committee members.

In a floor speech to his colleagues on Feb. 2, Saiki made it clear he sees a uniform, statewide policy as important to re-starting the local economy.

“Hawaii’s economy is service-oriented and primarily consists of small businesses and restaurants. We need to incrementally and safely re-open travel. Even if that means using a statewide travel policy that is predictable and functional,” he said.

Nearly 100 people submitted testimony in support of Saiki’s bill, including hotels, tour companies, vacation rental operators, and the trade group Airlines for America.

Former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, who is now president & CEO of the Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association, said a survey by the Hawaii Tourism Authority found the most prevalent reason tourists declined to visit the state “was that testing requirements were unreasonable.”

Hannemann said in his written comments that “while we recognize the importance of ‘home rule’ and allowing the county mayors to decide what is best for their communities, the lack of cohesion in rules for travelers and returning residents to Hawaii has led to significant confusion, further harming an industry already suffering an unprecedented economic downturn.”

Others including Luke Meyers, administrator of the state Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, suggested the bill may not be necessary. Meyers said that “the various counties already have a clear sense of how they wish to handle quarantines and testing requirements for travelers.”

Dr. Sarah Kemble, acting state epidemiologist, said a post-travel test is “optimal,” but may not be feasible for all islands. Eleni Avendaño/Civil Beat/2020

Lawmakers questioned Acting State Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble about the merits of a testing protocol such as the Kauai system, and Kemble pointed out the obvious — that a single test before arrival in Hawaii cannot prevent people from arriving with the virus.

The addition of post-travel testing does improve authorities’ ability to identify people who have COVID-19, and “an optimal system would include a post-travel test that occurs not at the time of arrival, but several days after arrival,” she said.

“From the standpoint of DOH in terms of what would make the best public health sense, yes, additional post-travel tests before releasing people from quarantine would be more effective, but I do understand the challenges, the feasibility and policy considerations,” she said.

The House Labor and Tourism Committee and the Pandemic and Disaster Preparedness Committee both gave preliminary approval to the measure, which now goes to the House Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs committees for further consideration.

The only vote against the measure came from Maui Rep. Tina Wildberger, who called it an example of “State of Oahu overreach.” She said the counties should be able to retain their autonomy, and noted that Kauai’s hotel occupancy is only slightly less than that of the rest of the state.

“Just because we’re going to try to put uniform rules in place does not make reasonable people get on airplanes and fly here and magically recover our economy,” she said.

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