The state of New York has used electronic COVID-19 “vaccine passports” to open New York Rangers games to fans at Madison Square Garden.

People in Israel can sidestep restrictions at businesses like gyms by showing a government-issued “vaccination certificate,” in either paper or electronic form, available for those who have gotten two doses of a vaccine and waited a week.

And just last week, the European Union announced its program to create a vaccination passport to let residents fly between EU nations in time for summer vacations.

Honolulu International Airport JAL Hawaiian Airlines . 9 jan 2017
Vaccine passports are seen as a key to further opening Hawaii’s tourism economy. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

So what’s the status of Hawaii’s attempts to create such a vaccine passport or certificate – seen as an enormously valuable tool for further opening tourism safely, and for events like weddings and concerts?

Officially, Gov. David Ige’s administration isn’t talking. Hawaii’s public health director, Dr. Libby Char, recently called a vaccine passport for Hawaii “a possibility” but didn’t respond to an interview request for this article. Gen. Kenneth Hara, who leads the state’s response as director of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, declined to comment.

But unofficially, there are signs that a passport could be coming in time for summer. Lt. Gov. Josh Green, who serves as the state’s COVID-19 liaison and who helped develop a program that lets people skip a 10-day quarantine by getting a negative test, said that while “there’s no official date,” he thinks a vaccine passport for travelers to Hawaii could be in place by May 15.

Meanwhile, although executives with the firm working to develop Hawaii’s passport wouldn’t comment for this article, a spokeswoman for CommonPass wrote in an email that, “We have some news that corresponds to your query going out next week.”

While there are several vaccine passports in the works – most notably ones being created by IBM, CommonPass’ parent The Commons Project, an aviation outfit called Verifly and the International Air Transportation Association – they all would generally do the same thing: provide proof that the person carrying the document had been vaccinated.

The obvious application for Hawaii is to enable travelers into the state more easily, by using proof of vaccination instead of a negative test.

“To take the next step, and make it easier to travel, that’s the obvious next step,” Green said.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green says a vaccine passport could help make possible events such as the Honolulu Marathon, one of Hawaii’s biggest annual sports events, pictured here in 2015. But whether the passport will be in place soon enough to let people plan remains to be seen. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The testing program already has restored visitor arrivals to as many as 15,000 per day – 50% of the pre-COVID-19 levels. Green sees a vaccine passport as providing another boost, to maybe 75% of pre-COVID-19 levels, he said.

But showing proof of vaccination could do more than benefit travelers and tourism businesses. Green sees it also helping special events, like weddings, as well as the Honolulu Marathon, usually held in mid-December before the holiday season, and the IRONMAN World Championship Triathlon in October on the Big Island.

“The marathon and the Ironman become possible if you have a vaccine passport to help,” Green said.

As promising as that sounds, there’s one thing bugging tourism industry executives: the lack of information from the top, which they say is vital for planning.

“We never know what the governor is going to do and when he’s going to do it,” said Keith Vieira, a Honolulu-based hotel industry consultant.

The islands are a long-haul destination for any visitors, he said, and Hawaii is hardly a budget choice. This means people need to plan in advance.

“People generally book Hawaii in the 60- to 90-day time frame,” said Vieira, who previously managed Starwood Hotels and Resorts’ Hawaii properties. “So if you’re going to book for the summer, you need to know now.”

The good news is that Hawaii has become a popular choice. Hotel occupancy over Easter is expected to top 70%, Vieira said. And, for U.S. travelers, Hawaii seems a better bet than destinations in Europe and Asia, where vaccines have been slow to roll out and where onerous restrictions often make a vacation impractical.

“We never know what the governor is going to do and when he’s going to do it.” — Keith Vieira, Honolulu hotel industry consultant

The key for Hawaii, he said, is to let people know now what to expect.

“If you communicate clearly,” he said, “it’s easier for people to follow the rules.”

A Small Window Of Opportunity

Time is critical for another reason, experts say. With vaccinations of the U.S. population expected to accelerate by the end of May, by which time President Biden has promised there will be enough shots to vaccinate everyone, a passport soon might be obsolete, says Yara Asi, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Central Florida who has studied the topic.

If an overwhelming percentage of the population is vaccinated by late summer or fall, there might be less of a need for people to prove they’ve been vaccinated as a prerequisite for traveling or other activities, Asi said.

“By then, we’re told that every American who wants one will have a vaccine,” she said. Meanwhile, given that the passports might take months longer to develop, she questions how much of a life span they will have.

“I don’t see the window when this will be economically viable,” she said.

And there’s another risk: that vaccine passports will widen the gap of inequity between those with access to vaccines and those who can’t get the shots. Not only would unvaccinated people face health risks — they potentially couldn’t attend events or travel.

Naalehu Anthony is helping disseminate information to the community concerning COVID-19 as head of the nonprofit COVID Pau. Anthony also is engaged in specific efforts to ensure access to vaccines for non-Native Hawaiian Pacific Islanders, who have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

Dancers perform in the during the IUCN opening ceremony held at the Neal Blaisdell Arena. 1 sept 2016
Advocates say vaccine passports could help allow cultural events, such as this hula performance during the IUCN opening ceremony held at the Neal Blaisdell Arena in 2016. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Anthony said efforts to get vaccines to people at the margins could be extended to make sure people get vaccine passports, as well.

But such good policies and intentions are one thing; the proof of effectiveness is the result, said Asi, the Florida scholar.

“The problem is when you look at the outcomes, you don’t necessarily see that translate,” said Asi, who also has written about issues related to migration and inequality.

Still, Anthony argues the potential benefits of a vaccine passport outweigh any risks that such documents will exacerbate societal inequity. He points to the Merrie Monarch festival, the annual celebration of Native Hawaiian culture that was cancelled in 2020.

With hundreds of hula artists wondering whether they will be able to gather on Hawaii island for this year’s event in June, a vaccine passport could help provide a level of comfort and safety for the performers, even if there’s no live audience this year, he said.

“It’s signaling to people that there are things occurring that are allowing us to open up and move forward,” he said.

Join us for a virtual conversation about the COVID-19 vaccine effort in Hawaii, featuring state epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble:

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