HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Starting Aug. 1, travelers who test negative for coronavirus no more than 72 hours before arriving in Hawaii will be able to avoid the state’s mandatory quarantine.
Gov. David Ige said the pre-testing plan will allow the tourism industry to reopen without a significant spike in new COVID-19 cases in Hawaii.
“We recognize that there are many concerns that continue,” Ige said.
“We believe this process of pre-testing does allow us to bring travelers back to Hawaii in a way that maintains a priority on the health and safety of our community.”
Ige and other administration officials have pointed to a similar model being used in Alaska as proof that a pre-testing requirement can work.
Alaska also provides testing upon landing, but Ige said that wasn’t practical for the islands.
Mayor Kirk Caldwell acknowledged trepidation at the prospect of reopening tourism, especially given a worrisome surge of coronavirus cases in some parts of the mainland.
But he said the safeguards in place, including contact tracing and widespread testing, will allow Hawaii to “live with the virus.”
“We need to return to welcoming visitors to our shores,” Caldwell said.
“For the state of Hawaii, we have approximately 240,000 unemployed people. We’re not going to see a return to a level of employment that we had before unless we open up to visitors.”
Lt. Gov. Josh Green, who helped develop the plan with the help of the health care professionals and business leaders, said it’s not a silver bullet but part of a “multi-layered system.”
That system also includes a travel form, health screening questions, and a temperature check.
He added that Hawaii is working with CVS and others to stand up a system to access traveler testing results to ensure they’re legitimate, but the details are still being hammered out.
At the news conference, House Speaker Scott Saiki also said lawmakers have set aside $90 million for thermal screening machines at airports, a web-based traveler information system and supplies.
The announcement comes as the governor’s quarantine order faces legal challenges ― and criticism from the U.S. Justice Department. In a court filing Tuesday, the agency called the mandate “likely” unconstitutional and said it discriminated against non-residents.
Hawaii instituted a mandatory quarantine for all incoming residents and travelers in March. Essential workers are exempt, but all others must quarantine for 14 days ― not even leaving their lodging for food.
In the wake of the order, scores of visitors and even a handful of residents have been arrested for violating quarantine rules. And more than 120 visitors have been assisted with plane tickets back to the mainland.
The governor and state Health Department have credited the quarantine with dramatically reducing Hawaii’s coronavirus infection rate and keeping the number of cases among the lowest in the nation.
And on Wednesday, Ige said he doesn’t envision lifting Hawaii’s quarantine rule until a vaccine is developed or therapeutic treatments have advanced to decrease the risk of the virus.
Public health officials said Hawaii is able to reopen the tourism industry because its hospital system isn’t overwhelmed by the virus.
State Health Director Bruce Anderson said 23 patients in Hawaii with COVID-19 are currently hospitalized and three are on ventilators. He also said hospitals have a 50-day supply of personal protective equipment.
“We are going to be watching these numbers very carefully,” Anderson said. “Making sure that our hospitals are ready and able to handle surges is critical to allowing visitors to come.”
The tourism industry ― and businesses that rely on visitors to stay afloat ― have increasingly urged the governor to set a date for when tourists would once again be welcome in Hawaii.
Chamber of Commerce Hawaii President and CEO Sherry Menor-McNamara said Wednesday’s announcement is a good first step.
“We have been advocating for safe, decisive and swift action, and this decision will help to restore our economy and keep Hawaii businesses open,” she said, in a statement.
Of course, it’s still unclear how many visitors will actually come to Hawaii this fall.
A pre-test would be an out-of-pocket cost that could add hundreds more to the cost of a family’s vacation. And many Americans have said they’d rather take a road trip than get on an airplane right now.
There’s also the timing factor. Tourism to Hawaii is year-round, but summer ― when school is out ― is traditionally one of the most popular times to visit.
The Economic Research Organization at the University of Hawaii has predicted a “moderate” return of visitors by the end of the year, but warned that it could take five years for the industry to bounce back.
This story will be updated.