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State to relaunch trans-Pacific travel as planned, but many still concerned

Updated: Oct. 8, 2020 at 7:55 AM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - The governor said Wednesday he’s “confident” the state’s much-touted testing plan for trans-Pacific travelers will launch as scheduled Oct. 15, but acknowledged that Neighbor Island mayors still aren’t sold on the safety of the program aimed at rebooting tourism.

Under the program, just one negative test will be required to skip quarantine.

Even the state Health Department says that’s not enough to keep the virus out.

“I continue to work with the mayors. I think we’re all committed to the same thing, finding a safe and healthy way to bring back trans-Pacific travelers,” Gov. David Ige said, at a news conference. “I continue to have conversations with the mayors on ways that we can improve the pre-travel testing program."

He added: “None of the mayors have told me that they wanted to opt out."

But Hawaii Island Mayor Harry Kim has said publicly that he doesn’t plan to participate in the program ― at least at first. His concern about the lack of a second, post-arrival traveler test in the program is shared by the other Neighbor Island mayors along with members of the Honolulu City Council.

Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami said Wednesday he has not yet decided whether to opt out of the program and added that he recognizes “uncertainty is a big problem for our community.”

“Our goal is not to extend a mandatory 14-day quarantine in perpetuity. Our goal is to keep our community safe while we take a phased, responsible approach to reopening," Kawakami said, pointing out that the county’s own plan to offer post-arrival testing to arriving travelers was denied by the governor. "We believed we could do that by offering an enhanced second-test program.”

Maui County, meanwhile, said it has not opted out of the pre-travel testing program.

State public health officials have said while a second test would provide an additional safeguard, requiring one is not practical or possible right now given Hawaii’s current testing capacity. Until that capacity can be increased, the state is planning a surveillance testing program as something of a compromise. It would test a random sample of 10% of incoming travelers.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green said Hawaii residents returning from the mainland would be ideal candidates.

“I do envision it will be easier to get our returning residents to take the test because its a free test four days after they’ve returned home,” said Green. “And a lot of people want to know before they go back to work here in Hawaii, with absolute clarity, that they’re negative.”

Health Director Dr. Libby Char says Hawaii is getting an allotment of 27,000 tests a week from the federal government ― or some 420-thousand tests through the end of the year.

But she also says those tests are mostly spoken for.

“Initial batches are meant for long-term care facilities, and the secondary batch is earmarked for use in the schools. We have a little bit of flexibility, but that’s primarily what it’s for," Char said.

She added: “The Department of Health supports additional testing for travelers entering our state, and a second test should be added as soon as testing capacity and logistics make this feasible."

Meanwhile, Ige said Wednesday he doesn’t expect the launch of the program will trigger a rush of visitors but sees it as a start. “Hotels are reopening gradually through November," he said. “We all know that it won’t be a huge surge, but it begins the process of restoring our economy.”

The traveler testing program will allow trans-Pacific travelers to forgo a mandatory quarantine if they test negative for COVID-19 no more than 72 hours before departure for Hawaii.

It’s considered the first major step toward relaunching tourism, the state’s no. 1 economic driver.

“At the moment, a tremendous amount of work is going in bringing back employees who were furloughed back in March, who are looking forward to returning to their jobs,” said John DeFries, the president and CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

“There’s a whole new echelon of responsibility that will come with everyone of these jobs, and it has to do with hygiene, sanitation, sterilization," DeFries added.

As the program’s start date nears, another big question is facing the state: How will inter-island travel be handled? Right now, the inter-island quarantine is poised to remain in place and residents will not be allowed to bypass the mandate with a negative test. Ige stressed, however, that could change.

One exception that emerged Wednesday: Maui Mayor Mike Victorino said that Maui County residents who travel to Lanai, Molokai or Lanai and back will not need to quarantine.

“The inter-island quarantine is in place to keep the families on the neighbor islands safe,” Ige said. “I continue to work with the mayors. I think we’re all committed to the same thing.”

For more on the pre-travel testing program, including how to get a test, click here.

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