Can Hawaii open up to tourists without letting in the coronavirus?

·6 min read
<span>Photograph: Marco Garcia/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Marco Garcia/Reuters

Thanks to its geographic isolation, a stay-at-home order and a mandatory 14-day quarantine for all arrivals, Hawaii has had some of the lowest rates of Covid-19 in the US.

But the quarantine essentially halted tourism in Hawaii, which accounts for a quarter of the economy. As a result, nearly one-third of the state’s working population has applied for unemployment.

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This week, Hawaii’s governor, David Ige, announced a phased approach to opening the non-tourism economy, or kamaʻaina (local) economy. The plan reopened auto dealerships, car washes and pet grooming services in May, while waiting until June to consider reopening higher-risk businesses, such as gyms, museums and theaters.

The governor also confirmed that the mandatory 14-day quarantine for all arrivals would stay in place through June. The finer details of how the tourism economy – bars, hotels, convention centers – will be reopened have yet to be released but one idea being discussed is waiving the quarantine for visitors if they take a Covid-19 test before traveling to Hawaii.

“The state needs to bring back tourism in some way. We need money,” said Colin Moore, the University of Hawaii public policy director. “But the only way to make that work is to find a way to do it as safely as we can.”

Hawaii&#x002019;s governor, David Ige, at the state capitol in January.
Hawaii’s governor, David Ige, at the state capitol in January. Photograph: Audrey McAvoy/AP

Nearly 240,000 people have signed up for unemployment since the beginning of March, according to Hawaii’s department of labor and industrial relations. The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which opened in May for gig workers and self-employed individuals, has received 28,000 applications. The state’s outdated unemployment system created a huge backlog in applications, forcing the recently jobless to wait weeks or, for some, more than a month for their first payments.

The governor has extended the quarantine until the end of June, which has helped bring the number of arrivals to Hawaii from the usual 30,000 to less than 1,000 most days. The mandatory 14-day quarantine requires that everyone arriving in the state or traveling between islands must go directly from the airport to their home or hotel. During the quarantine period, all food must be delivered. Those who break quarantine face a maximum fine of $5,000 and/or imprisonment of up to one year.

Local lawmakers have budgeted $36m for airport temperature cameras, which the governor said at a press conference on Monday would be part of the future screening process for arrivals to Hawaii’s airports. “It does allow us to identify those who are most sick in a way that can be less intrusive than other screening methods,” Ige said. The White House has advocated for their use, although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that thermal screening airport passengers is not a particularly effective detection strategy.

“It’s a lot of money to set up a system that makes people feel better but actually doesn’t catch many of the active cases that are coming in,” said Sumner La Croix, a research fellow at the University of Hawaii’s Economic Research Organization.

A man walks along a closed pier on Waikiki Beach in Honolulu in late March.
A man walks along a closed pier on Waikiki Beach in Honolulu in late March. Photograph: Caleb Jones/AP

Instead, he said, people should take a test before flying to Hawaii, and individuals who share their negative results with the state could then have the 14-day quarantine waived. This system won’t be flawless, since test results are not always accurate and not everyone will do it. He also acknowledged that people flying to Hawaii might still be exposed to the virus while traveling.

But it would stop the vast majority of asymptomatic people who would have flown into the state with Covid-19, making it relatively easy to keep the number of new cases low. Hawaii’s lieutenant governor, Josh Green; the US congressman Ed Case; and local lawmakers have expressed support for a screening strategy that includes pre-testing for the coronavirus, while the Federal Aviation Administration and the US Department of Transportation have said that would be possible.

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“We’re going to have to deal with outbreaks, but that shouldn’t be our main policy,” said La Croix. “Our main policy should be trying to prevent people who have active coronavirus infections from getting on planes.”

Maintaining low rates of Covid-19 will probably encourage visitors to come to the state, as they will think of Hawaii as a safe place. It will also make residents who are weary of visitors – a handful were caught breaking quarantine after posting pictures of themselves on the beach – more confident about allowing tourism to return.

Testing, contact tracing, and isolation methods also needed to be bolstered before the state allowed tourists to come back, said La Croix. In early May, the state’s department of health said it was increasing the number of trained contact tracers, who will help track the people an infected person may have come in contact with in order to slow or stop the spread of the virus.

Even after the quarantine is lifted, it could be years until the tourism economy returns to its previous figures. In 2019, Hawaii received a record-breaking 10 million tourists. If the recovery of Hawaii’s tourism economy continues to drag, the double-digit unemployment rates could remain for years, too.

The international airport in Honolulu, seen in April. Coronavirus has essentially halted Hawaii&#x002019;s tourism.
The international airport in Honolulu, seen in April. Coronavirus has essentially halted tourism in Hawaii. Photograph: Caleb Jones/AP

The existing idea that Hawaii is overly reliant on tourism and the need to diversify the economy has picked up steam since the pandemic began.

“We can retrain people to start attracting a more diverse set of industries,” said Moore. He said the governor should create retraining opportunities for people in the hospitality sector who have lost their jobs, state-sponsored jobs that would focus on public works projects, and programs for young people. “People need a sense of purpose. Being unemployed for a long time, your skills start to rot. It can lead to depression,” he said.

Along with long-lasting high unemployment numbers, many Hawaii residents will be forced to move to the US mainland for opportunities and affordable housing. It will probably take Hawaii longer to recover than states on the mainland with more diversified economies, said Moore. Hawaii has already seen a loss of population for the past three years and the pandemic is likely to accelerate that trend.

“You’re going to lose the people you really don’t want to lose,” said Moore about residents moving away from Hawaii. “Well-trained, younger people with families, who could be the future of the state, leaving. We’re going to lose some of the most valuable people this way.”

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