Hawaii lawmakers may standardized COVID travel restrictions across islands

Hawaii lawmakers are considering a bill that would standardize the state’s pandemic travel restrictions across the islands, a departure from the current system that allows individual counties to create their own modified safety measures.

Members of the House Finance Committee heard testimony on the bill Thursday.

Currently, island counties have the option to opt out of the state’s “Safe Travels” program, which requires a single negative COVID-19 test before departure for Hawaii to avoid a mandatory quarantine. Counties can either require people to quarantine for 10 days, implement additional screening requirements such as secondary testing or create modified quarantines.

Any departures from the state plan must be approved by the governor.

The measure would require all counties to allow travelers to be exempt from quarantine if they get a negative COVID-19 test under the state’s program. But it would also limit the state’s ability to make rapid changes to rules without legislative involvement.

The bill would also effectively end a program on the island of Kauai that now requires visitors to have two negative COVID-19 tests to get out of quarantine.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people do not travel at all right now. But if they must the agency suggests people test before and after their trips and quarantine on either end, a model Kauai adopted to allow some visitors.

Kauai offers two options. People can get a negative pre-travel test and then spend three days on another island before testing again and traveling to Kauai. Travelers can also participate in a three-day “resort bubble” quarantine at a county-approved property before getting a second test to be allowed into the community.

Kauai has had very little virus spread throughout the pandemic with only 232 total cases since March 2020.

More than half of those were directly linked to travel, and the island saw a surge when it initially participated in the state’s single pre-flight testing program in October.

Since Jan. 5, when Kauai began its modified testing and quarantine program, the island has confirmed only 35 cases of coronavirus. Thirty of those have been travel-related, according to the state Department of Health.

But while Kauai has had the lowest number of virus cases of any county in the state, many people have lost jobs and businesses are suffering.

“Public health is our top priority,” said Hawaii House Speaker Rep. Scott Saiki, who is the lead author of the bill. “But … Kauai has the highest unemployment rate of any county in the state right now.”

Some say the various county rules deter tourists from coming to Hawaii.

“The lack of cohesion in rules for travelers coming to Hawaii has led to significant confusion,” said Cheryl Williams, who runs sales and marketing for Highgate Hotels in Hawaii. “This is further harming our industry, which is already suffering an unprecedented economic downturn.”

Tourism numbers are down dramatically across the entire state, and Hawaii has had one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation since the start of the pandemic.

Some testing labs have been unable to produce results in time for people’s travel even though the state provides three days to get results. The new law would allow people to seek a test once they arrive in the state, something Hawaii’s Department of Health says is problematic.

“Those people often still need accommodations for quarantine until that negative test result can be obtained,” said Dr. Sarah Kemble, Hawaii’s acting state epidemiologist. “It’s not the majority, but we have also encountered people who have actually hidden a positive result and are attempting to get a negative result after arrival just to get out of quarantine.”

While vaccinations are increasing and new cases are on the decline, health officials remain cautious as new variants emerge.

At least three cases of the variant first detected in the United Kingdom have been found in Hawaii residents who have not recently traveled, indicating the mutant strain came to the islands with a traveler and is spreading locally.

“We’ve had all kinds of warning from the scientific community … of the potential danger for the variants,” said James Raymond, a retired Hawaii deputy attorney general who offered testimony Thursday. “If the worst of these or even the modestly conservative estimates prove correct, we would need to implement additional restrictions quickly. This bill would prevent that from happening.”

Kauai businesses: Reliant on tourists, struggle under confusing coronavirus travel rules

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