Ige delays plan to reopen tourism until Sept. 1 amid COVID-19 surge on the mainland

Updated: Jul. 14, 2020 at 7:29 AM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - In a major blow to the tourism industry, the governor has announced plans to delay until Sept. 1 a program that would allow trans-Pacific travelers to skip quarantine in Hawaii if they test negative for COVID-19.

Gov. David Ige said he delayed the launch of traveler pre-testing program, which was set to begin Aug. 1, because COVID-19 outbreaks in several states are “not in control” and pushing infections to record highs.

He acknowledged that the delay will hit businesses that rely on visitors hard.

“This was not an easy decision to make. It really was a choice between two difficult options,” he said.

The governor’s decision extends the 14-day mandatory quarantine for all trans-Pacific travelers through the end of August as the state continues to hammer out the details of how the testing program will work.

Ige has faced mounting pressure from several corners, including from all four county mayors, to push back the planned reopening of tourism given the surge in cases on the mainland. Hawaii has also seen a worrisome increase in infections and on Monday reported three new COVID-19 deaths.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority said Monday that the industry wants to “welcome back our visitors once our state is ready to do so in a safe manner that will hopefully avoid the need to backtrack in the future.”

HTA said it would update the industry on the rules and procedures once the state provides them.

Meanwhile, a new survey appears to show residents are siding with the governor on the delay in reopening tourism. The University of Public Policy Center polled more than 600 residents to get their thoughts and found 8 in 10 don’t want tourists to return right now. They also trust government to keep them safe.

The tourism plan, first announced on June 24, was considered by many to be a lifeline to Hawaii’s shuttered visitor industry. But the plan hit a number of roadblocks in recent days: The mainland has seen record high in new COVID-19 infections and shortage of testing capacity are being reported in a number of areas.

“We did believe it would be in the best interests of everyone here in Hawaii to delay the start of the program,” Ige said, in a news conference at the state Capitol building.

“I also want to make it clear that we still believe in the pre-travel testing program. We will continue to take actions necessary to implement it safely.”

Ige first implemented quarantine measures back in March, requiring passengers on any flight landing in Hawaii to spend 14 days in isolation to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

As a result, the number of passenger arrivals statewide fell from an average of nearly 30,000 per day to fewer than 400 by the middle of April, according to data released by the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

Eliminating travel restrictions that pertained to inter-island travel ― which the governor did last month ― was the first step taken toward ushering in the return of the tourism sector in Hawaii.

The second, the state hoped, was to be the changes to the trans-Pacific travel restrictions that were scheduled to go into effect on Aug. 1.

In lieu of a 14-day quarantine, the state instead wants to require passengers to produce a negative coronavirus pre-test taken within 72 hours of departure to Hawaii.

And though the state admitted that a rise in cases was expected even if new restrictions were in place, the state Department of Health insisted that Hawaii’s hospital system could handle a potential increase.

But as COVID-19 cases on the mainland have surged in recent weeks, including in some of the markets that typically send the highest number of travelers to Hawaii, the state’s plan has been criticized as too weak and incapable of ensuring that visitors were following the rules.

The Honolulu City Council unanimously passed a resolution Wednesday asking the governor to consider delaying the implementation of the change in travel restrictions in order to fortify certain aspects, like testing and contact tracing.

The resolution also suggested that the state implement a requirement for a second negative coronavirus test, taken within seven days of the first negative test, in order to avoid quarantining.

And on Thursday, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell himself cast doubt on the feasibility of the state’s plan, saying he no longer thinks allowing visitors to avoid quarantine starting next month if they test negative for COVID-19 is “safe for everyone.”

U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, and members of the Hawaii County Council also spoke out against state’s plan, urging the governor to reconsider its implementation.

“The current plan for testing visitors 72 hours before arriving in the State of Hawaiʻi is inadequate as it will increase the exposure of COVID-19 to airline, hotel, and service industry employees,” the Hawaii County Council said in a statement. “These are our families, friends, and neighbors.”

This story will be updated.

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