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Hawaii Lawmakers Consider Standardized Pandemic Travel Rules

Ryan Finnerty/HPR

HONOLULU — Hawaii lawmakers are considering a bill that would standardize the state's pandemic travel restrictions across the islands, a departure from the current system that allows individual counties to opt out of a state pre-flight testing program or add their own modified safety measures.

Members of the House Finance Committee heard testimony on the bill Thursday.

Currently, island counties have the option to not participate in the state's "Safe Travels" program — which requires a single negative COVID-19 test before departure for Hawaii to avoid a mandatory quarantine. Counties can either require people to quarantine for 10 days, implement additional screening requirements such as secondary testing or create modified quarantines.

Any departures from the state plan must be approved by the governor.

The measure would effectively end a program on the island of Kauai that now requires visitors to have two negative COVID-19 tests to get out of quarantine.

Kauai allows people to get a negative pre-travel test and then either spend three days on another island before travel to Kauai or participate in a three-day "resort bubble" modified quarantine at a county-approved property before getting a second test to be allowed into the community.

Kauai has had very little virus spread throughout the pandemic with only 232 total cases since March 2020.

More than half of those were directly linked to travel and the island saw a surge when it initially participated in the state's single pre-flight testing program in October.

Since the start of Kauai's resort quarantine and secondary testing program on Jan. 5, the island has had only 35 positive cases — and 30 of those have been travel-related, according to the state Department of Health.

But while Kauai has had the lowest number of virus cases of any county in the state, it also has many tourism workers out of jobs and businesses on the brink of closure.

"Public health is our top priority," said Hawaii House Speaker Rep. Scott Saiki, who is the lead author of the bill. "But ... Kauai has the highest unemployment rate of any county in the state right now."

Hawaii has had among the highest unemployment rates in the U.S. since the start of the pandemic.

The bill is aimed at reducing confusion among tourists.

"The lack of cohesion in rules for travelers coming to Hawaii has led to significant confusion," said Cheryl Williams, who runs sales and marketing for Highgate Hotels in Hawaii, during the House hearing on Thursday. "This is further harming our industry, which is already suffering an unprecedented economic downturn."

Tourism numbers are down dramatically across the entire state, even on islands participating in the state's pre-travel testing program.

Some testing labs have been unable to produce results in time for people's travel even though the state provides three days to get results before arrival. The bill would allow people who come to Hawaii without a pre-travel test result to seek a test once they arrive, something Hawaii's Department of Health says is problematic and expensive.

"Those people often still need accommodations for quarantine until that negative test result can be obtained," said Dr. Sarah Kemble, Hawaii's acting state epidemiologist. "It's not the majority but we have also encountered people who have actually hidden a positive result and are attempting to get a negative result after arrival just to get out of quarantine."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people do not travel at all right now, but if they must the agency suggests people test before and after their trips and quarantine on either end, a model Kauai adopted to allow some visitors.

The bill would limit the state's ability to quickly change travel restrictions without legislative involvement in the event of another COVID-19 surge, something health officials are watching closely as new variants emerge.

At least three cases of the variant first detected in the United Kingdom have been found in Hawaii residents who have not recently traveled, indicating the mutant strain came to the islands with a traveler and is spreading locally.

"We've had all kinds of warning from the scientific community ... of the potential danger for the variants," said James Raymond, a retired Hawaii deputy attorney general who offered testimony Thursday. "If the worst of these or even the modestly conservative estimates prove correct, we would need to implement additional restrictions quickly. This bill would prevent that from happening."

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