Debate Continues Over Balancing Economic Recovery And Public Health

Nov 26, 2020

Business leaders are worried a change to the state’s Safe Travel program could disrupt an economic recovery that appears to be gaining momentum.

It has been over a month since the state of Hawaii relaxed travel restrictions, allowing for a limited resumption of tourism. The initial results have been mostly positive.

Hawaii’s nation-leading unemployment rate has begun to fall and local workers who had been sidelined by the pandemic are re-entering the labor market.

Crucially, there has not yet been a major increase in travel-related cases of COVID-19.

Rare over the preceding months, University of Hawaii economist Carl Bonham provided an assessment that was cautiously optimistic, saying in a meeting of state House Select Committee on COVID-19 that the pre-travel testing program appears to be achieving its goal of striking a balance between public health and economic recovery.

“It has done exactly what people thought it would do and the improvement in the labor market speaks to how important that is,” Bonham remarked.

Some 28,000 workers who were unemployed at the end of September had jobs in October, without a substantial increase in the average number of daily new cases. A spike did occur around Halloween, but peaked a week later and began to decline.

This week, new rules took effect that industry leaders worry could derail that recovery.

The major points of the program remain unchanged: anyone seeking to avoid Hawaii’s quarantine must still get a COVID test within three days of flying and show proof of a negative result upon landing.

But now the traveler must have received the negative result before boarding a plane or they will be required to quarantine for the full two weeks upon arrival in Hawaii. Previous rules allowed passengers to exit self-isolation early if the test result came in after they arrived.

Test providers caution that it can take 48 hours or longer to deliver those results, creating a tight timeline for anyone seeking to avoid the quarantine.

Mufi Hannemann, president of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, told lawmakers that he thinks the increased possibility of having to quarantine will scare off prospective visitors.

“It will result in a great reduction,” Hanneman predicted. “We are very concerned across the board,” he said, speaking of the local visitor industry.

Hawaiian Airlines CEO Peter Ingram expressed concern that the new policy would be unfair to travelers whose tests do not come in on time.

“You’ve got a tight 72-hour time frame,” Ingrham remarked.

“I’m concerned about people who are doing the right thing, doing everything we’ve asked them to do and through no fault of their own, they’re not able to get a test back.”

Hawaii’s pandemic restrictions have been the subject of multiple legal challenges, all of which have failed. State Attorney General Claire Connors has previously stated that the state is on solid legal footing, so long as restrictions are applied evenly to visitors and returning residents.

Gov. David Ige contends that concern over the new rules is exaggerated. According to figures he provided, 94% of passengers who participated in the first month of the Safe Travel program had their test results before flying.

Ige made the policy change at the urging of state Health Director Libby Char and county mayors, who were particularly concerned about travelers with an undelivered-positive test result arriving in Hawaii.

Since not every passenger receives a test after arrival, the argument goes, there would be no way to confidently catch potential spreaders without requiring test results before flying.

But the statewide numbers don’t show that to be a major problem.

Figures released by the state indicate that 45 individuals were found to be positive for the virus after arrival as of Tuesday, out of more than 20,253 tested. That works out to 2.2 per 1,000 tested.

Ray Vara, president and CEO of local hospital chain Hawaii Pacific Health, says the data do not suggest a need for tighter restrictions, such as those recently announced.

“At levels that low, it seems inconsistent with a community that is trying to find a balance between public health and economic recovery,” he remarked.

Of the opposing view are leaders like Kauai County Mayor Derek Kawakami, who says that given his island’s size and limited healthcare resources, even the dozen or so post-arrival positives confirmed on the Garden Isle pose a significant problem.

Kawakami has since officially requested that Gov. Ige temporarily remove Kauai County from the Safe Travel program. That would require anyone arriving on the island to undergo the full two-week quarantine, regardless of test results.

Since its inception, the pre-travel testing program was never intended to identify every individual with COVID-19. Rather it was meant to screen enough that the number of new cases are kept to a level manageable for contact tracers and the local healthcare system.

Where that safe level lies remains a matter of debate.

Ray Vara described limited acceptance of some positive travelers a “sensible risk” needed to sustain the economic recovery.

Other leaders like Mayor Kawakami think public health should be paramount. In particular, he argues that because of the counties' vastly differing populations and resources, the metrics for evaluating that risk at the statewide level cannot be applied to his much smaller island.