HONOLULU: Angela Margos was among the first passengers in San Francisco to get on a plane headed for Hawaii, where travellers who test negative for the coronavirus will no longer be required to self-quarantine for two weeks.
“Vacation, peace of mind,” said Margos, a nurse from San Carlos, California, of why she's flying to Hawaii. “I need time to relax, unwind.”
The pre-travel testing programme began Thursday (Oct 15) and allows visitors who test negative for COVID-19 within 72 hours of their arrival in the islands to avoid quarantine - a measure that has been in place for all arriving passengers for most of the year.
Officials had touted the mandatory quarantine rule as an integral part of Hawaii’s early success in keeping the coronavirus at bay. The new testing programme is an effort to stem the devastating downturn the pandemic has had on Hawaii’s tourism-based economy.
Margos ran into hiccups with getting her test. She first did it at the hospital where she works, only to find out it was not an approved site for United Airlines and the state of Hawaii. She then paid US$105 for a drive-through test, but was later informed there was an error with that test.
Margo ultimately paid US$250 for a fast-result test Thursday at the airport in San Francisco, which came back negative.
But gaps in the pre-travel testing programme coupled with increasing cases of COVID-19 across the US have raised questions about whether Hawaii is ready to safely welcome back vacationers.
And when local restrictions were eased before summertime holidays, community spread of the disease spiked to alarming levels, forcing a second round of stay-at-home orders for residents and closures for non-essential businesses.
Opponents of the testing programme have said a single test 72 hours before arrival - especially when coupled with the option to fly without a test and still quarantine - is not enough to keep island residents safe.
READ: 'A step in the right direction' - Thailand's tourism operators welcome special visa for foreigners
Kathleen Miyashita and her husband were among those who came to Hawaii Thursday without getting tested. They said they plan to quarantine at their family's farm on Oahu.
“We chose to do the 14-day quarantine,” Miyashita said. “We have no issues with having food being brought in. It’s like a quarantining haven in terms of having fresh fruits and vegetables at home.”
She said she and her husband were “not at all” concerned about being asymptomatic carriers of the disease.
"We've been travelling and we just take precautions,” she said, adding that they had already done one quarantine in Hawaii about two months ago.
Hawaii's economy is almost entirely built around tourism and local families who rely on the sector to survive need to return to work.
More than 100 of Hawaii’s approximately 4,000 restaurants, bakeries and caterers have closed permanently and more than 50 per cent 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 more than 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 entirely, unable to pay for their rent, food supplies and staff wages.”
Toguchi Ryan joined Democratic Governor David Ige on Wednesday to talk about a new restaurant debit card that will give some unemployed Hawaii residents a US$500 to spend at local restaurants over the next 60 days. The US$75 million program is being funded by federal CARES Act money and is aimed at stimulating the local economy.
“When restaurants like us have more customers, we buy more from our suppliers and we reinvest the money several times over in our local economy," Toguchi Ryan said.
Hawaii, which has about 1.4 million residents, reported 10 additional coronavirus deaths and more than 100 newly confirmed cases on Wednesday. On Oahu, home to the famed Waikiki Beach and the state's most populated island, the positivity rate was nearly 4per cent.
County mayors have criticised the state's plan for a single test prior to flying and want a mandatory second test for all arriving passengers.
Kauai island 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 opt out of the pre-travel testing program entirely and continue to require all arriving visitors to quarantine 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 programmes would be left to the counties.
Maui and Kauai counties decided on voluntary secondary testing for visitors. The Big Island will require secondary rapid screening upon arrival for visitors to avoid quarantine. Oahu officials have said they want to put in place another layer of screening but do not yet have the testing capacity.
The mixed bag of county and state rules could create chaos for vacationers who have not properly prepared for the various screening requirements, especially those travelling to the Big Island.
“This second test upon arrival to Hawaii island will provide an extra layer of protection for our community," said Big Island Mayor Harry Kim in a statement Monday. "Virtually, all medical and coronavirus experts agree for the necessity of 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.
Results will be available in about 15 minutes and travellers who test negative will not be required to quarantine. People who test positive will be required to 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 on vacation or at home, are required to isolate and cannot fly until they no longer have the virus.