The Aloha State leads the nation in containing the coronavirus, reporting the lowest infection rate and second fewest deaths of all 50 states. But that success combating the pandemic has been coupled with deep economic wounds, including the nation's second highest unemployment rate as of May, at 23%.
The clamor to reboot Hawaii's tourism industry, the largest private employer in the state, responsible for more than $2 billion in annual state tax revenue, grew louder in recent weeks. Gov. David Ige finally gave the industry what it was asking for in a June 24 press conference: a testing plan that will allow visitors to skip a two-week quarantine and a firm date for restarting out-of-state tourism.
"We've all sacrificed in our community, all taken personal responsibility in this fight against Covid-19, and are now ready to begin the process of returning our economy in a safe and healthy way," Ige said.
All trans-Pacific arrivals to Hawaii have been subject to a 14-day, mandatory self-quarantine since March 26. Starting Aug. 1, visitors and residents who undergo a coronavirus test within 72 hours of arrival to the Islands and show proof of a negative result will be allowed to forgo the quarantine.
Travelers participating in the pre-travel testing program must get tested at a location approved by the state Department of Health, and the test must be the diagnostic, or PCR, style of test, not an antibody or antigen test. The state is still working on an agreement with CVS to provide tests for Hawaii visitors, but it has not been finalized, Lt. Gov. Josh Green said at the press conference. Travelers will have to cover the cost of the test, and will be required to provide printed or emailed pre-test certification as evidence of a negative test result.
Additionally, officials plan to continue temperature checks at airports across the state, and anyone with a reading above 100.4 degrees or who is experiencing other symptoms will be required to undergo a secondary screening with trained health care staff. All travelers are also required to fill out a state travel and health form.
"The health of our community remains our primary focus. This multi-layered pre-travel testing and screening process allows travelers an alternative to the 14-day travel quarantine in a way that protects the health and safety of our kamaaina [residents] and visitors," Ige said. "Now is the time to work together to ensure that our local businesses can safely reopen to incoming travelers."
Even last week, as the number of coronavirus cases in the United States hit its highest level since April, pressure grew from not only Hawaii business interests but also the federal government for the Aloha State to ease its travel restrictions.
After Ige extended the quarantine for international and out-of-state arrivals through July 31, a group of Kauai and Island of Hawaii residents, including a newly formed association called For Our Rights, filed a lawsuit arguing the state had exceeded its state of emergency powers. The lawsuit states residents have a right to "freedom of movement" and a mandatory quarantine "amounts to house arrest of the traveling individual."
On June 23, the DOJ filed a statement of interest for the case that supports the position of the plaintiffs. The statement, from assistant attorney general Eric Dreiband of the Civil Rights Division, deputy assistant attorney general Alexander Maugeri and U.S. attorney Kenji Price of the District of Hawaii, argues the current policy discriminates against "out-of-state residents" who own properties in Hawaii in a manner that harms Hawaii's economy, and public health could be protected through less restrictive measures. In making its case that Hawaii's regulations are overly restrictive, and not sufficiently tailored to address the health crisis, the DOJ pointed to less stringent policies recently adopted by Alaska, which also has one of lowest coronavirus infection rates in the country.
Alaska also implemented a mandatory 14-day quarantine for those entering the state, and arrivals who can show they tested negative for coronavirus shortly before departing, or who test upon arrival and wait for a negative result, can skip or shorten their quarantine period. Additionally, travelers to Alaska who can provide evidence that they tested positive for coronavirus and subsequently recovered can also have the quarantine period waived.
"Reasonable measures designed to protect the public are not only appropriate, but responsible during a pandemic," Price said in a statement. "However, there are bounds to the discretion our public officials have during times of crisis. Those bounds are shaped by constitutional safeguards, such as the right of Hawaii residents and persons who hail from other states to travel freely within this great country."
The governor had announced his intentions to roll out a pre-travel testing system to resume trans-Pacific travel prior to the lawsuit, but various interests in the state were growing impatient with the lack of details. Hawaii's hotels, through the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, lobbied for at least a month's notice to prepare for a full reopening. Despite the resumption of interisland travel without quarantine restriction on June 16, many of the state's hotels and resorts have remained closed. In May, Hawaii hotel room revenues statewide fell by 96%, to $15.4 million, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
On the same day the DOJ weighed in on the lawsuit, the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii delivered Ige a petition with more than 1,000 signatures calling for a definitive plan for restarting trans-Pacific travel and several other measures to help small businesses. The petition was supported by numerous business associations, including Retail Merchants of Hawaii; Hawaii Food Industry Association; Hawaii Farm Bureau; Hawaii Food Manufacturers Association; and Hawaii Restaurant Association.
"The economic devastation has spared no business," Sherry Menor-McNamara, Chamber of Commerce Hawaii president and CEO, said in a statement. "It will persist long after a phased reopening begins. Instead of ever-changing, murky guidelines and mixed messages, Hawaii's businesses need clear and decisive guidelines and support in order to survive."
The details of Hawaii's plan are still being finalized, but it is unlikely the state will allow for testing upon arrival as Alaska has done, Ige said during the press conference.
"The whole notion of testing upon arrival just doesn't work for our state," he said. "It would take testing capacity away from our state. The volume of visitors we get in Hawaii is about 10 times the visitors arriving in Alaska."
A person can be infected with coronavirus for several days before producing a positive test result, and state health officials expect cases to increase as tourism resumes and will be monitoring for spikes. As of June 25, Hawaii had the lowest infection rate per 100,000 people in the nation and had registered 17 deaths attributed to Covid-19.
"Lifting the 14-day quarantine for out-of-state travel will require an intensive airport screening process, increased contact tracing and monitoring of cases, and careful tracking of the state's progress in controlling and containing the coronavirus," director of the state Department of Health Bruce Anderson said at the press conference. "This is a huge undertaking by the state and a tremendous commitment from public health as we embark on these new and untested initiatives and face many unknowns."
Travelers to Hawaii who do not get tested beforehand will be subject to the quarantine for the foreseeable future, officials added. Quarantined individuals must remain in their residence or accommodations for the entire period except for medical emergencies, and violators face up to one year in jail and a $5,000 fine.