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Unemployment Drops Slightly Amid Concerns Over Changes To Travel Testing Program

Casey Harlow / HPR

At more than 14%, Hawaii’s unemployment rate still leads the nation, but there are encouraging signs of a recovery.
Since the resumption of tourism in October, unemployment has declined from a high of more than 15%. Thousands of local residents who had previously stopped looking for work have also rejoined the labor force.

“Twenty-eight thousand people came back into the labor market in October and took jobs,” said Carl Bonham, University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization executive director on Monday.

“It really is a good indicator of how important the pre-travel testing program and the reopening of tourism is and what that can do at reducing unemployment and getting people back to work,” the economist added.

Individuals not looking for work are not counted in normal unemployment figures, meaning the relatively modest drop in the official unemployment rate masks the actual number of jobs added.

In mid-October, Gov. David Ige launched the Safe Travel Hawaii program, which allows visitors and returning residents to skip a two-week quarantine if they test negative for COVID-19 before flying.

Since then, daily visitor arrivals have increased dramatically, although they remain well below pre-pandemic highs. That bodes well for Hawaii’s continued economic recovery, but other headwinds remain.

COVID-19 cases are surging on the U.S. mainland, Hawaii’s largest tourism market.

Leaders in the local business community are also expressing concerns over recent changes to the pre-travel testing program announced by Ige.

Visitors and returning residents must now have the results of their COVID-19 test before boarding their flight or be subject to a full two-week quarantine. Previous rules allowed travelers to exit quarantine early when the negative test results were delivered.

The stated goal is to prevent positive individuals from getting on a plane to Hawaii.

Local business leaders say they were not consulted and worry the change could derail Hawaii’s economic recovery.

State Health Director Libby Char and several county mayors lobbied for the new rule in light of the uncontrolled spread of coronavirus  on the mainland.

According to state officials,  more than 273,000  people have arrived in Hawaii under the Safe Travel program. Forty-four later tested positive for the virus after arriving.

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