Changes are coming for Hawaii's Safe Travels Covid-19 screening program next month, but the first batch of adjustments will have little impact outside the state.
Starting May 11 travelers with proof of full vaccination against Covid-19 will be able to travel between Hawaiian islands without testing or quarantine restrictions, but only if they were vaccinated within the Aloha State.
Gov. David Ige made the announcement regarding the changes to the Safe Travels program in a press conference April 20, also noting that a similar system for out-of-state travelers is in the works but will debut at a later date. Each state handles vaccination records differently, and for now Hawaii can only verify the records of those who received the jab locally. Ige said he hopes the state's partners working on a vaccine verification system will figure out how to include out-of-state travelers in the next few months.
"We anticipate it will happen this summer, but it depends on how quickly they can connect the networks to get access to vaccination information for all the states," Ige said at the press conference.
Mufi Hannemann, president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, said he has been advocating for easing restrictions on travel within the state to help test the programs and boost commerce in an incremental and manageable way.
"We've seen from surveys that locals are wary of reopening tourism too quickly, and opening up interisland travel to residents first helps show Hawaii residents that tourism benefits them, as well," Hannemann said.
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The changes come less than a month after the CDC updated its travel guidance to say fully vaccinated people can travel safely while maintaining other Covid-19 prevention measures, such as wearing masks and social distancing.
To be eligible for the exemption, travelers must register on the state's Safe Travels digital platform, complete required health and travel forms and upload their vaccination card. The person then receives a QR code that is scanned at the airport. Travelers must also carry their vaccination card with them. Only those who are two weeks past their final dose of the vaccine, the point at which the CDC says the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are fully effective, can qualify for the exemption.
The state has contracted with First Vitals, CommonPass and Clear's Health Pass to verify vaccine information, and the Safe Travels platform will start accepting vaccine documents starting May 7 for flights beginning May 11.
Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, the state's adjutant general who leads the state's Covid-19 response as director of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, said the biggest unknown is when the state's partners will be able to develop a system that can verify vaccination records from all 50 states.
"Initially the cards will be validated by screeners at the airport," Hara said at the press conference. "At this moment the state is unable to verify individuals vaccinated out of the state."
State officials are also working on programs that will enable them to verify vaccination records for international travelers, Ige said. A quarantine exemption for vaccinated international travelers would likely come after opening up the program to U.S. mainland travelers, possibly before the end of the year.
Eventually, as the country approaches herd immunity, the vaccine exemption may not be necessary, according to Lt. Gov. Josh Green.
"It may very well be a moot point if most of the country is vaccinated and we're not concerned about widespread fraud," Green said. "If we were to see large outbreaks of a variant that was disconcerting or that was evading the vaccine, we'd probably pause before moving on too aggressively, using vaccinations as our guide."
While hoteliers and airlines are reporting pent-up demand for travel to Hawaii, the impact of the initial phase of Hawaii's vaccine passport is likely to be limited while the exemption is restricted to only those who received a vaccine in the state.
"I think the vaccine passport is a great idea, but I just wish the process wasn't so slow," said Honolulu-based hospitality consultant Elizabeth Churchill. "It would have been nice if the vaccine passport was ready when Kauai rejoined the Safe Travels program on April 5. They need to streamline the process and have some semblance of consistency across the state. Getting the vaccine exemption ready by summer will help boost summer travel with people who are weighing their options and looking for fewer hoops to jump through."
Those who are not vaccinated, including children under the age of 16 who are not yet eligible, must still test negative for Covid-19 within 72 hours of their departure in order to bypass a 10-day quarantine.