As COVID-19 vaccinations continue to ramp up and the local economy shows more signs of improvement, it’s time for the state of Hawaii to lift its restrictions on interisland travel.
The health of the population and the health of our finances go hand in hand in this pandemic. Maintaining the mandatory quarantine without a coronavirus test for passengers flying from island to island is a hindrance to the long-term prospects of both.
Business leaders, economists and Lt. Gov Josh Green are joining a growing chorus of experts saying the time has come to implement changes to the Safe Travels program.
But Gov. David Ige, who has the sole authority to change the rules, continues to resist the idea.
Asked about Green’s wish to “dump the interisland travel quarantine all together” because it’s “a total waste of time and money,” Ige on Wednesday told Hawaii News Now, “It’s easy for someone who lives on Oahu to talk about, (that) it’s more of a hassle than it’s worth.”
The governor’s response to his lieutenant governor’s views was yet another unfortunate example of the disconnect among Hawaii’s top leaders on major policy matters. But there is little logic in continuing to make it hard for people to move between islands for pleasure, for business, for family or for medical reasons.
While Oahu-bound interisland travelers are not subject to quarantine, those traveling from Oahu to neighboring islands in Maui, Kauai and Hawaii counties are subject to a 10-day quarantine unless they receive a negative COVID-19 test within three days of travel, or secure an exemption or get approval for a shorter quarantine period.
Kauai-bound travelers are subject to a quarantine with or without a test. Although Mayor Derek Kawakami has asked Ige to approve the county moving back into the Safe Travels program, right now Kauai visitors must participate in a “resort bubble” program and take a second test 72 hours after their arrival on the island.
Maui-bound travelers, in the meantime, must download the AlohaSafe Alert App that tracks their encounters with people who are potentially infected, among other requirements.
These requirements remain in place even as a tsunami of positive news on the COVID-19 front has emerged in just the past few days. It all helps support the argument — our argument — on how important it is for Hawaii to capitalize on the momentum.
Nationally, the Biden administration on Tuesday announced that there will be enough vaccines for every adult in the country by the end of May. And on Thursday Senate Democrats voted to take up the president’s $1.9 trillion stimulus bill that includes a new round of stimulus checks and $350 billion for state and local governments.
Also this week Hawaii received the first shipment of 11,900 doses of vaccine from Johnson & Johnson — sooner than expected — just as health officials said they would allow residents ages 70 and older to be eligible for shots beginning Monday.
Hawaiian Airlines, Hawaii’s largest private employer, said it would delay a decision on more layoffs until May 1. And the state could see a significant economic recovery over the next six months as pent-up desire for travel coincides with the increased vaccinations on the mainland and the expected new wave of federal stimulus money.
The need to relax interisland travel barriers is all the more pressing since state officials have yet to allow use of a vaccine passport. It could be weeks or months before that happens, even as Hawaii should already be putting out a welcome mat to entice summer travelers.
COVID-19 remains a threat and Hawaii should certainly not follow the path of Texas and Mississippi in lifting mask-wearing mandates. But daily cases and infection rates have steadily been on the decline and augur well for recovery.
Unfortunately, what is also on the decline are visitor arrivals and spending. In January arrivals dropped 80% compared to a year ago, according to the latest data from the Hawaii Tourism Authority, while spending was down $383 million, a drop of more than 77%.
It’s no surprise that a roundtrip ticket from, say, Honolulu to Hilo on Hawaiian Airlines can be had for as little as $78. Businesses are literally on life support. It’s time for our governor to extend them a lifeline.