Two weeks before Hawaii plans to reopen to tourists, the Honolulu City Council member who represents Waikiki has come out in opposition to Gov. David Ige’s reopening plan, saying more than 40% of travelers carrying COVID-19 – some 25 per day — will slip through the cracks.
Councilman Tommy Waters’ resolution, which he sent out in a press release Friday, calls for travelers to Hawaii, including tourists and returning residents, to take at least two COVID-19 tests and be subject to “a mandatory medically appropriate quarantine period.”
Gov. David Ige’s current plan would require one test no more than 72 hours before departure.
“Just using common sense, two tests are better than one,” Waters said in an interview. “Why not do a second test if we can?”
Waters joins Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami and Maui Mayor Michael Victorino who also have called for a two-test regimen.
But Honolulu’s Mayor Kirk Caldwell says he doesn’t think a two-test process is feasible before Oct. 15, when the state plans to launch the pre-travel test program.
On Friday, Caldwell said he prefers two tests, one test 72 hours before departure and a second test four days later.
“That’s what I would like,” Caldwell said. But he added, “What I like and what I can have are two different things.”
For months, policymakers and business executives have been grappling with a way to reopen Hawaii’s tourism economy, which has effectively been shuttered since March because of a 14-day quarantine order for arriving passengers. The shutdown has put tens of thousands of people out of work and crashed the state’s economy.
In response, Ige and state officials have been structuring the pre-travel test program in partnership with pharmacies and testing labs on the mainland. But that plan has been repeatedly delayed amidst a spike in cases on Oahu, and as officials worked out the logistics of the one-test system.
Now, with many details in place – including a half dozen medical companies and airlines lined up to administer the tests — and the program set to go into effect Oct. 15, Waters has come forward to oppose it.
In an interview, he said he didn’t speak up sooner because in his view Lt. Gov. Josh Green, Hawaii’s COVID-19 liaison, only unveiled the details on Thursday.
In addition to protecting the public better than the current plan, Waters’ resolution says, a two-test program coupled with a quarantine for travelers will be good for businesses.
Requiring two or more tests will enable the tourist industry to “target higher-spending visitors in order to increase economic activity with lower impact on public health and the environment,” the resolution says.
In addition, the measure says, the single-test plan could lead to yet another economic shutdown.
“A steep rise in COVID-19 cases due to increased arrivals of infected travelers to Hawaii could lead to a subsequent closure of the economy or to further shut down orders, which would likely cause insurmountable hardships for many already struggling local businesses and lead to further job losses and business closures,” the measure says.
Businesses aren’t so sure.
Sam Shenkus, vice president and marketing director for the Royal Hawaiian Center, said the center has been planning to reopen on Oct. 13 after months of fits and starts. The center takes up three blocks of prime property on Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki, and while some restaurants have been open for takeout or limited service, other businesses have been shut down for six months.
Shenkus said she was surprised to hear Waters objecting to the reopening plan “at this late date.”
“I can tell you we’re upset,” she said. “Do you know how much work it takes to get this scheduled and planned? It’s a lot of work.
“He never contacted us,” Shenkus added. “He never called Royal Hawaiian Center and said, ‘Hey guys, what do you think?’”
Kekoa McClellan is a Hawaii spokesman for the American Hotel and Lodging Association. He said the industry shared Waters’ concerns about safety but does not think two tests is necessary.
“We appreciate Councilman Waters’ concern for the success of our industry by protecting the health and safety of our guests, our employees and the public,” McClellan said. “That’s why we have supported an aggressive pre-testing program.”
But, McClellan said, discussions always have focused on requiring just one test before travel.
Waters did not share that view.
“When the governor decided to unveil the one-test program, which was yesterday, I became concerned,” Waters said.
“I didn’t know until they unveiled it,” he said.
Waters said he never spoke to Ige or Green to gain a better understanding of the program during the months it was being discussed, even though his district would potentially host tens of thousands of tourists per month.
“I did not talk to the governor. I didn’t talk to the lieutenant governor,” he said. “And they didn’t talk to me either.”
Waters said he is relying on the medical expertise of Dr. Darragh O’Carroll, who has called for multiple tests, and Dr. Kapono Chong Hanssen, among others, in deciding to push for two tests.
Although Caldwell said Honolulu lacks the capacity to test all the tourists coming in, Waters said Honolulu could quickly gear up and possibly still open by Oct. 15.
Waters’ measure doesn’t specify how long travelers would have to stay in quarantine. But in an interview, he said passengers could take the test upon arrival and get results back within 36 hours. The test could be paid for by the traveler or with CARES Act money, he said.
Waters estimated about 25 infected people per day will slip into the state if Hawaii uses just one test.
Sumner La Croix, a University of Hawaii economist who has studied COVID-19’s effects on the economy, reached a similar conclusion that about 25 people per day might arrive with an infection undetected. But he said that assumes thousands of visitors resume coming to Hawaii.
Few people will come to Hawaii if they have to take a test before they come, a second test when they’re here, and stay quarantined in their hotel rooms for several days, he said.
“I don’t know how many people are going to want to come here and quarantine for four days,” he said.
That number could be lowered further by using a second, rapid test when the visitor arrived, he said. But he said even a second test wouldn’t eliminate the risk.
“There is no perfect test,” he said. “People are going to slip through.”