HONOLULU – About 8,000 people landed in Hawaii on the first day of a pre-trip test program that allowed travelers to come to the islands without quarantine for two weeks if they could produce a negative coronavirus test.
Angela Margos was among the first passengers in San Francisco to board a flight to Hawaii Thursday morning.
“Vacation, peace of mind,” said Margos, a nurse from San Carlos, California, about why she̵
The new test program is an attempt to stem the devastating slowdown that the pandemic has had on Hawaii’s tourist-based economy. Officials had proclaimed the mandatory quarantine rule as an integral part of Hawaii’s early success in keeping coronavirus at bay.
But gaps in the pre-trip test program combined with rising cases of COVID-19 across the United States have raised questions about whether Hawaii is ready to safely welcome back vacationers.
And as local restrictions were eased before the summer holidays, the spread of the disease in the community spread to alarming levels, forcing another round of home orders for residents and closures for non-essential businesses.
Margos encountered hiccups getting her test. She first did it at the hospital where she works, only to find out it was not an approved location for United Airlines and the state of Hawaii. She then paid $ 105 for a drive-thru test, but she was later informed that there was an error with this test.
Margos eventually paid $ 250 for a quick results test Thursday at the San Francisco airport, which came back negative.
Opponents of the test program have said that a single test 72 hours before arrival – especially when combined with the possibility of flying without a test and still in quarantine – is not enough to protect the island’s residents.
Kathleen Miyashita and her husband were among those who came to Hawaii Thursday without being tested. They said they plan to quarantine their family’s farm on Oahu.
“We chose to do the 14-day quarantine,” Miyashita said. “We have no problem getting food in. It’s like a paradise in quarantine when it comes to having fresh fruits and vegetables at home.”
She said she and her husband were “not at all” worried about being asymptomatic carriers of the disease.
“We have traveled and we are just taking precautions,” she said, adding that they had already quarantined Hawaii about two months ago.
Hawaii’s economy is almost exclusively built around tourism, and local families who depend on the sector to survive need to return to work.
More than 100 of Hawaii’s approximately 4,000 restaurants, bakeries and catering companies have closed permanently, and more than 50% predict they will not survive the coming months, officials have said.
Monica Toguchi Ryan, whose family has owned and operated The Highway Inn restaurant on Oahu for over 70 years, said the lack of tourism has been crippling.
“The restaurant and service industry has suffered so much during this pandemic,” Toguchi Ryan said. Restaurants have not received any federal relief since the spring and are struggling to pay their expenses. Some restaurants have closed completely and are unable to pay for their rent, food supply and staff salaries. ”
Toguchi Ryan joined Democratic Gov. David Ige on Wednesday for talking about a new restaurant debit card giving some Hawaii unemployed residents $ 500 to spend on local restaurants over the next 60 days. The $ 75 million program is funded by federal CARES Act funds and aims to stimulate the local economy.
“When restaurants like us have more customers, we buy more from our suppliers and we reinvest the money several times in our local economy,” said Toguchi Ryan.
Hawaii, which has about 1.4 million inhabitants, reported ten more coronavirus deaths and more than 100 recently confirmed cases on Wednesday. On Oahu, home to the famous Waikiki Beach and the state’s most populous island, the positivity rate was almost 4%.
County mayors have criticized the state’s plan for a single test before flight and want a mandatory second test for all arriving passengers.
Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami said last week that his initial proposal for secondary testing was rejected by the governor.
Big Island Mayor Harry Kim said his county would completely opt out of the test program before the trip and continue to require all arriving visitors to be quarantined for two weeks. Both now have different plans.
The governor said this week that mayors could implement certain secondary testing measures on their respective islands, but the cost and logistics of running such programs will be left to the counties.
Maui and Kauai counties decided to volunteer secondary testing for visitors. Big Island will require secondary rapid screening on arrival for visitors to avoid quarantine. Oahu officials have said they want to get a new screening layer in place but do not yet have the test capacity.
The mixed bag of county and state rules could wreak havoc on vacationers who have not properly prepared for the various screening requirements, especially those traveling to the Big Island.
“This second test upon arrival in the island of Hawaii will provide an extra layer of protection for our community,” Kim said in a statement Monday. “Almost all medical experts and coronavirus experts agree on the need for more than one test.”
Those arriving on the Big Island – home to Hawaii’s active volcanoes and the site of a 2018 eruption that wiped out entire neighborhoods – will take a mandatory rapid antigen test when they land.
The results will be available in about 15 minutes, and travelers who test negative are not required to quarantine. People who test positive should immediately get a more accurate PCR test and then quarantine until their results are available, usually within 36 hours.
People who test positive in the state, whether they are on vacation or at home, need to be isolated and cannot fly until they no longer have the virus.