A U.S. judge will not stop Hawaii from enforcing a quarantine on arriving travelers, saying in a ruling that the emergency mandate is reasonable during the public health crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
A group of Hawaii, California and Nevada residents tried to stop the quarantine by filing a lawsuit alleging it is unfair and unnecessary. It violates the fundamental right to travel freely, they argued.
The quarantine mandate, which applies to out-of-state travelers and Hawaii residents, doesn't prevent people from traveling and the plaintiffs “have elected not to travel — whether to or from Hawaii — because they do not want to be quarantined,” U.S. District Judge Jill Otake said in a ruling issued Thursday night denying a request for a temporary restraining order.
An attorney representing the people challenging the quarantine didn't immediately respond to a request for comment Friday. A spokesman for the Hawaii attorney general's office also didn't immediately comment.
Hawaii “imposed the quarantine to prevent the importation and spread of COVID-19 and to avoid overwhelming the health care system, which are compelling state interests,” Otake said.
As of Thursday, Hawaii's health department reported a total of 946 confirmed cases and 18 deaths since the outbreak began. The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.
Hawaii has been able to keep infection rates low because of emergency restrictions, state Attorney General Clare Connors told Otake at a hearing Thursday.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.
Harmeet Dhillon, representing the group who filed the lawsuit, said it's not known if low rates can be attributed to the quarantine and that the state could have enacted less restrictive measures sooner.
Gov. David Ige has announced that starting Aug. 1, travelers will be able to bypass the quarantine if they test negative prior to arriving. Ige has yet to announce full details, but said the testing plan is similar to one in Alaska.
“Although the right to travel within the United States is constitutionally protected, that does not mean that a temporary quarantine cannot be instituted in certain areas when evidence shows that unlimited travel there would directly and materially interfere with the safety and welfare of that area,” Otake said.
The attorney general's office issued a statement Friday: "Judge Otake asked a lot of important and thoughtful questions during the hearing and this decision is good for the State of Hawaii. Our department will continue to wholeheartedly defend the Governor’s Emergency Proclamation."
HPR's news staff contributed to this report.