Ready, set, go: A reluctant Mayor Kim opens the island to trans-Pacific travelers

  • A Southwest plane passes over Kuawa Street on Tuesday while flying into Hilo International Airport. (KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald)

Mayor Harry Kim prefers not to open up the island at all today to trans-Pacific travelers without quarantine, but since he has no choice, he implemented the two-test procedure to reduce the coronavirus infection risk to residents and visitors.

That’s the synopsis of an almost four-hour presentation Kim and his staff gave Wednesday to the County Council, which convened an emergency meeting to clear the air about why the Big Island is the only island in the state requiring both a pre-travel and on-arrival test.

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“If the pre-travel test is good enough for everybody else, why isn’t it good enough for us?” asked Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy.

Kim said the required pre-travel RT-PCR test, the deep nasal swab test some consider the gold standard of molecular tests, still can be wrong 20% to 30% of the time.

“This is not an acceptable risk,” Kim said.

The on-arrival test, the rapid antigen test, can be less accurate, but results from the more shallow nasal swab are available in about 15 minutes. Kim said he’s been promised an “unlimited” number of tests from Scott Miscovich, president and founder of Premier Medical Group Hawaii. The test will be paid for with $3.5 million in federal coronavirus relief funds, which expire Dec. 30.

Trans-Pacific arrivals at the island’s three airports will be taken aside into large areas cordoned off at the airports, where they’ll be given the test and asked to stay in the area until their test results come in.

Those who test negative are sent on their way, but those who test positive will be required to quarantine 14 days in a hotel, or in a county quarantine facility. Vacation rentals remain banned as quarantine sites, Kim said.

The county has about 50 hotel rooms in Hilo and about the same number of rooms in houses in West Hawaii that can be used as county-sponsored quarantine sites for those who have nowhere else to go.

That didn’t satisfy Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas, who acknowledged local businesses do need the influx of customers. But her concerns surround the number of travelers into the Big Island’s only airport with direct flights from the mainland.

“I’m still saying I am concerned about 1,000 people arriving at the Kona airport tomorrow,” Villegas said. “I do not feel that this plan is sound. I have a lot of concerns about potential negative impacts and people being harmed. … It’s looking like it’s all going to fall on the west side.”

The mayor has been saying for months the island isn’t ready to handle the estimated 1,000-3,000 extra travelers per day the reopening is expected to bring.

Kim’s concerns were echoed on a state level late Wednesday by a report released by the state auditor.

“Hawaii’s travel self-quarantine program is the most comprehensive in the country, and the State’s quick build-out of staffing and infrastructure is impressive in many ways,” said State Auditor Les Kondo. “However, we found an overall lack of coordinated planning and communication that diminishes the effectiveness of the program and raises questions about its continued success.”

Kim acknowledged some reopening is necessary to start bringing back an ailing economy, but he’s trying to weigh the economy with an acceptable risk of infection.

“My position has not changed. … that’s why I said I would like the opportunity to present two tests,” Kim said. “The decision was made by (Gov. David Ige) and his advisors to go tomorrow. I still don’t agree with it and I am trying to minimize the risk to residents by having the second test.”

Puna Councilman Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder estimated some 5,000 Big Island businesses have shut down.

“We can’t continue this way,” he said.

Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz agreed the county needs “to infuse some kind of life back into the economy.”

Kim said the economy will ultimately fail if COVID-19 gets out of control.

“Everything around economic development stems from one thing and one thing only, and that’s to stem the spread of the disease,” he said.

Kim said the risk, the cost and the bureaucratic nightmare of monitoring interisland travelers made him decide not to join the other three counties in opening up interisland travel at the same time as trans-Pacific travel. But, after being pressed by council members, he said he’d make a recommendation to the governor by Friday on a way to reopen interisland travel.

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Council Chairman Aaron Chung said island residents are feeling slighted.

“It’s a matter of fairness,” Chung said. “A lot of residents are saying they’re going to open up trans-Pacific travel. How come it’s not available to us as residents?”

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