Will Hawaii's new reopening plan be enough to lure back wary tourists?

Jay Jones
Hawaii plans to give travelers a break from the required 14-day quarantine if they have proof of a negative COVID test.  (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Hawaii plans to ease rules that require tourists and locals to quarantine for 14 days when they enter the state. Starting Aug. 1, anyone who shows proof of testing negative for COVID-19 will be allowed skip mandatory two-week confinement.

Gov. David Ige made the announcement Wednesday, the same day New York, Connecticut and New Jersey started to require quarantines for travelers from certain states that have been experiencing a spike in cases (California is not one of them).

Hawaii has the lowest number of coronavirus cases in the country. It had just 816 confirmed cases and 17 deaths, as of Thursday.

Out-of-state travelers who want to avoid a long quarantine will have to have negative results (in an email or printed out) from a specific type of COVID-19 test, called a PCR. Test results will have to come from a CDC-approved lab. Travelers will have to pay for the test, and testing will not be offered at Hawaii's airports.

No time frame was given for how far before their arrival travelers would need to be tested. However, anyone who arrives with a fever or other symptoms of the coronavirus will face medical screening before being allowed to leave the airport.

Ige's original quarantine order in March, extended until July 31, was strict, including fines and penalties for locals and tourists who didn't comply.

Hawaii has the lowest number of COVID cases in the country.  (Tor Johnson / Hawaii Tourism Authority)

As the state slowly begins to reopen, some in the hospitality industry expect travelers to start trickling back.

Hawaiian chef and restaurateur Peter Merriman said hotel deals may initially lure tourists back. "There’s going to be a lot of people that are looking for a bargain," he said. "There’s going to be bargains out there, so I think we’re going to get a lot of discount tourists initially in Hawaii."

He also thinks high-end travelers — less affected by the country's financial state — will return too, providing a boon for the upscale restaurants he operates on the islands of Hawaii, Kauai, Maui and Oahu.

What about hotels?

Officials with Aqua-Aston Hospitality, which operates 28 hotels and resorts in Hawaii, on Wednesday evening were beginning to develop reopening plans.

"We are looking forward to learning more about the state’s new pre-arrival testing program and to potentially being able to accept reservations for transpacific travelers from August and beyond," Theresa van Greunen, an assistant vice-president, said in an email. Guests who book beginning July 6 for stays through Sept. 30 will have the option of canceling up to 24 hours ahead without penalty.

Airlines are expected to increase their flight volume in response to the governor’s action.

Hawaiian Airlines said Thursday morning that beginning Aug. 1 it will reinstate limited service from mainland U.S. (Long Beach, however, is not one of the airline's immediate service areas.)

"Gov. Ige’s announcement will not result in an overnight return to the record visitor arrivals that we experienced in 2019," Mufi Hannemann, president and chief executive of the Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Assn., said in a news release. "It simply will not happen."

More visitors, even if greatly reduced from pre-pandemic times, will inevitably lead to more coronavirus cases.

"We do anticipate that we will get more cases," Ige said. "But we have spent the last few weeks in building up our capacity to handle more COVID-positive cases."

That increase worries Merriman, who said that August’s uptick in travel could be short-lived. "If the cases get too high, we’re going to have a real problem and people aren’t going to want to come to Hawaii at all," he said. “It’s kind of like shooting a three-pointer [in basketball]. If it goes in, then great, you’ve got three points. But there’s a much higher probability you’re going to miss. And a miss in this particular case could cost us the game."

Merriman said that Ige has been facing "phenomenal pressure" to reopen from many in the hospitality industry. The restaurateur realizes that people are desperate to get back to work, including the farmers who supply him with produce. "They had a lot of crops in the ground, and then business just shut off," he said.

Before the pandemic, Hawaii had the lowest unemployment rate in the country. Now the state's unemployment is second highest after Nevada, another state reliant on tourism.

Can pre-testing travelers keep numbers low? It's not a "silver bullet," Lt. Gov. Josh Green said at Wednesday's news conference. "It’s not perfect, as we know, but a pre-test will minimize the risk that COVID-19 is imported into our state."