Ige to extend traveler quarantine past June

  • IGE

HONOLULU — Gov. David Ige on Thursday said he would extend the state’s 14-day quarantine requirement for travelers arriving in the state beyond June 30.

“Certainly, we’ll be making that announcement soon,” he said. He didn’t specify how long the extension of the mandatory two-week quarantine for in-state arrivals would be.

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“Interisland is different, but trans-Pacific continues to be concern,” Ige said.

The governor told a joint online press conference held with the state’s four county mayors that an official announcement on the extension would be made later. The state mandated the quarantine beginning on March 26 to control the spread of the coronavirus.

Ige said he’s been working with the mayors on lifting a separate 14-day quarantine requirement for people traveling between Hawaii’s islands. He said a decision would be coming within the next few days.

Maui Mayor Mike Victorino said he wants to make sure steps are taken to control the virus.

“I’m willing to open up with necessary safeguards to prevent spread between islands,” Victorino said.

The pandemic has bludgeoned Hawaii’s economy, triggering what University of Hawaii economists called “the sharpest and deepest economic downturn in the state’s modern history.”

Hawaii instituted a stay-at-home order and closed dine-in restaurants, shopping malls and other businesses in March to slow the spread of the virus. The state then followed with the traveler quarantine, which effectively shut off the flow of visitors who fuel the state’s biggest industry, tourism. Unemployment hit 22.3% in April, among the highest rates in the country.

The number of travelers arriving in Hawaii fell to 4,564 last month compared to 856,250 in April 2019, the Hawaii Tourism Authority said. That’s a 99.5% decline.

The University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization predicted in a new report the state’s gross domestic product will shrink 11.1% this calendar year as spending by travelers plunges 65%. This estimate is based on a calculation that tourists will begin to return to the islands in late July.

A more pessimistic forecast, based on tourists not returning until late September, predicts a 12.9% decline in GDP this year and a 73.5% drop in visitor spending.

The state is also facing a sharp decline in tax revenue.

The Council on Revenues, which forecasts tax revenue for the governor and Legislature, on Thursday forecast general fund tax revenue would drop 7% during the fiscal year ending June 30. It expects that to be followed by a 12% drop the subsequent fiscal year.

Council member Jack Suyderhoud, a University of Hawaii professor emeritus, said there was a great deal of uncertainty in the estimate. One unknown is when the state’s leaders would move to lift the quarantine requirement, he said.

“The problem is that we’re now in the business of forecasting what the viral science is going to be doing and then we also have to forecast what the politicians are doing. And so it’s getting pretty crazy,” Suyderhoud said during an online broadcast of the meeting.

The council last issued its forecast on March 11 before the state’s stay-at-home order and traveler quarantine took effect. At that point, the council estimated general fund tax revenues would increase 3.8% during the current fiscal year and be flat in the next fiscal year.

Hawaii law requires policymakers to consider the council’s estimates when drafting state budgets and appropriating funds. Its seven members are appointed by the governor, House speaker and Senate president.

Meanwhile, the state Senate Special Committee on COVID-19 expressed preliminary support Thursday for a pilot “travel-safety bubble” proposal from a private sector group called the Hawaii Executive Collaborative. The proposal would loosen travel restrictions between Hawaii and Japan.

The state entertained about 1.6 million visitors from Japan last year, accounting for 15% of Hawaii’s visitors. In April, however, only 13 tourists arrived from Japan because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the mandatory 14-day quarantine order on passengers arriving in Hawaii.

Paul Yonamine, chairman and CEO of Central Pacific Financial Corp., said planners for the so-called “travel bubble” could start meeting Monday and tentatively would like to welcome back travelers from Japan starting July 1.

“Given the significance of Japan tourists to Hawaii and Japan’s low COVID-19 infection and death rates, a travel bubble with Japan could serve as an effective start and pilot in the gradual reopening of tourism,” Yonamine told the lawmakers.

The agreement, if approved, would likely allow incoming visitors from Japan, who meet safety thresholds, to be exempted from the state’s mandatory quarantine.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green, an emergency room physician from Kohala, said in a Facebook Live question-and-answer session earlier Thursday he likes idea.

“There’s also New Zealand and Australia,” Green said. “These are large possibilities for us.” Both those countries, like Hawaii, have flattened the coronavirus infection curve.

Green did add a caveat, however.

“We cannot just throw caution to the wind,” he said. “We can’t just open up and hope that our (airport screening) lanes screen and catch everybody. We will get cases because … the national numbers are that about 35% of all individuals who are positive for COVID are asymptomatic carriers. But there are clusters that are much worse. On one of the cruise ships, there were 80% of the individuals that were positive asymptomatic. They had a weak strain, basically, of the virus.

“Can you imagine if a cohort from some city or a cruise ship came in and 80% were positive? They would spread it like wildfire. And we have such a low rate of infection, we have very little immunity here. So without many antibodies and with the potential for asymptomatic carriers coming into the state … I think ‘travel with aloha’ — meaning getting a test 72 hours or less before travel — will give us good protection.”

He added that mainland U.S. visitors to Hawaii could be welcomed in on an expedited schedule, if they were to be tested within 72 hours of boarding a flight from Hawaii.

Green said many CVS pharmacies on the mainland now do testing on demand for a fee, and visitors arriving in Hawaii with negative test result certification could avoid much of the red tape other arrivals encounter at Hawaii airports.

Big Island Mayor Harry Kim said the possibility of asymptomatic carriers of the novel coronavirus arriving in Hawaii is of particular concern, because “they look healthy.”

“I think all of us here on the screen, the five of us … put the priority on community’s health first, rightfully, and secondly is the economy, knowing how important that is,” Kim said.

Kim also announced Thursday that almost all business, including private gyms, fitness centers and indoor swimming pools, museums and theaters, personal services such as barbers and hairstylists, tattoo artists, real estate services, etc., will be allowed to reopen Monday, as long as they follow state Department of Health safe reopening practices and CDC guidelines.

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There are exceptions, including transient accommodations, except where essential workers are staying; bars, nightclubs, arcades and other public gathering venues where social distancing measures are difficult to implement; contact sports; and events and other gatherings greater than 10 persons.

The Hawaii Tribune-Herald contributed to this report.

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