Yes, we’d all love to get back to normal, and we know that in Kona that means being able to open the airport, hotels, short-term rentals, restaurants, fishing and diving tour boats, and the like. But permit me to try to inject a voice of reason, and let’s be realistic for a minute.
We’re enjoying being virtually disease-free at the moment, but how long do you think that would last if we open the airport freely to flights coming in from Texas, where they don’t practice any of the recommended precautions such as small groups, distancing, store closings, and where some people brag about openly defying mask wearing requirements. Or flights from the West Coast that allowed connections from Wisconsin, Florida, and other states equally defiant in their resistance to any restrictions. They’re just following the example of a president who has never worn a protective mask and mocks efforts to control COVID-19. Even allowing people to visit from New York or New Jersey, which are finally getting some control of the virus but still see many new cases every day, with currently available technology or protections would virtually guarantee we’d have a West Hawaii outbreak of the virus within two weeks.
Several people have opined that all we have to do is ask the airlines to test people before they board the aircraft. But no state, airline or airport has offered to test outgoing travelers (for obvious reasons), and none will. So that is not a realistic proposal. Among other problems, if only one person in the crowd waiting to board the flight tested positive, the flight would presumably have to be canceled until the remainder had self-quarantined for an additional 14 days.
So we switch to the idea of testing every single person arriving at our little outdoor Kona airport. First, take a look at what’s required at the moment if getting off a plane arriving in Hong Kong, one of the most medically and technologically advanced destinations in the world:
Each and every traveler must:
• Complete a quarantine order form
• Complete a health declaration
• Download a tracking app
• Put on a tracking bracelet
• Register the bracelet
• Verify phone with officials and show that the number provided worked
• Take a COVID-19 spit test
• Share details of planned ride away from the airport, including license plate
This process takes each arriving person approximately eight hours! Now imagine we could somehow make all this technology magically arrive at the Kona airport — and we certainly don’t have either personel or equipment for this — overnight. Where would we put the 150-200 people getting off each plane? (The so-called 15-minute test sold by Abbott Laboratories has turned out to have a huge incorrect reading rate when compared with more accurate testing.) And what happens if it turns out that one or more of the people arriving test positive? You would have to quarantine the entire planeload for 14 days.
I believe the only logical and humane way for the Big Island to proceed is to move more cautiously. First let’s open our own facilities — beaches, restaurants, maybe even movies and live theatre at least on a small scale — and, importantly, our schools with careful controls of class sizes and teacher testing. This way we free up as many people going back to work as possible. And we watch carefully and continuously as we go forward.
But it’s going to be some time before we can invite tourism freely. And it’s going to depend a lot on what happens in the states and countries from which we would expect to start drawing tourists again — and this a complete breakdown of national leadership on disease control and a president who ridicules the medical experts. Realistically, we better buckle down for the longer haul if we want to keep this island healthy.
Arne Werchick is a resident of Kona.