The state has no jurisdiction to determine whether or not to close ports in Hawaii amid the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, state transportation officials said Wednesday.
Department of Transportation Director Jade Butay said during Gov. David Ige’s Capitol Connection Facebook Live stream that the closure of ports is the responsibility of the federal government.
“We don’t have the authority or jurisdiction to allow or deny entry to ships,” he said. “We would have to get a federal directive, and it’s the U.S. Coast Guard who’s in charge of the port of entry.”
DOT spokesman Tim Sakahara said a federal directive would be required for a complete ban, like, for example, closing harbors to cruise ships for 60 days.
However, the Coast Guard does have authority to block individual ships from entering port.
“If there’s a concern from any of the passengers, crew members — say they get sick or there’s a medical emergency that requires further testing — that ship can be stopped and moored off the coast until further determination can be made,” Sakahara said.
Vessels also are required to contact authorities ahead of time if a passenger or crew member gets sick while in transit to the islands, he said.
According to Sakahara, American-based cruise lines are going even further by testing and screening passengers before boarding.
“They’re checking travel history,” he said. “If you’ve been to one of the higher risk countries — to China, to Japan, to South Korea, to Italy, to Iran — in the past 14 days or more, you won’t be allowed to board. If you’re symptomatic or if you have a fever you, also won’t be able to board, and anyone in your stateroom … would not be able to come on to that cruise ship, either.”
In response to a viewer question, Butay said the Coast Guard also has the authority to decide who can disembark from ships.
Sakahara said there also have been questions about whether the state could block or ban flights into the state.
“… It’s not like we could just say we’re going to block domestic flights from coming into Hawaii,” he said. “It would need to be coordinated with the federal government, and it’s certainly not something that could be made as a snap decision. There are a lot of logistics that would have to go with it, but namely having that authority from the federal government to direct that.”
Ige said, too, there is a national working group coordinating with the cruise industry to develop procedures to better screen passengers and improve the handling of sick individuals on cruises, and similar conversations are happening with airline executives.
Sakahara said the DOT is often asked what the department is doing to prepare.
“We like to say that there’s a lot of things that are uncontrollable about a disease like this, especially a new disease, but the DOT and the state is controlling the things that can be controlled — like cleaning, like sanitizing,” he said. “So the airports and harbors, the janitorial staff and employees are doing a very good job of going through, especially focusing on the common touch point areas — the handrails, the door knobs, the elevator buttons — all of those things are being sanitized. Overnight there’s a deep clean and scrubbing throughout all the facilities in order to try and kill as many germs as possible.”
The DOT also has received 250 hand-sanitizer dispensers to supplement what already is available at airports.
Sakahara said, too, that airlines are cleaning planes and equipment before and after every flight to try and kill as many germs as possible.
On Wednesday, the World Health Organization classified the outbreak of COVID-19 as a pandemic. WHO leaders said this is the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus.
In a letter Wednesday, state Department of Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto announced that all school and department-related travel to the mainland and international destinations has been canceled.
“We did not make this decision lightly knowing the impact it will have on our school communities; however, the safety of our students and staff is our highest priority,” Kishimmoto wrote.
The Hawaii State Capitol’s Public Access Room will be closed until March 18 after an employee’s roommate came into contact with an individual who tested positive for the disease.
No one who works at the capitol has tested positive for or shown any symptoms of COVID-19.
In other developments Wednesday, a radiation oncologist in Hamilton, Canada, has tested positive for COVID-19 after a visit to Hawaii, Canadian media outlet CBC reported.
The doctor, 32, was in contact with both cancer patients and staff members since returning to the Juravinski Cancer Centre.
She returned from her trip Saturday, and according to CBC, the doctor was tested Monday, received a positive result Tuesday, and has been in self-isolation since.
The state Department of Health has reached out to its federal partners regarding media reports of this visitor but had not received any information about the person Wednesday afternoon.
Reporter John Burnett contributed to this story.