Tourists return to Hawaii amid ever-changing pandemic rules

  • Hawaii resident Ryan Sidlow, center, carries his son Maxwell as their family boards a United Airlines flight to Hawaii at San Francisco International Airport, Thursday. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

  • Hawaii residents Ella Sidlow, center, pets her dog Cookie between her sister Sienna, left, and mother Gina, right, as they wait to return home on a United Airlines flight to Hawaii at San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco, Thursday. Coronavirus weary residents and struggling business owners in Hawaii will be watching closely as tourists begin to return to the islands on Thursday without having to self-quarantine upon arrival. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

  • Theresa Zoller, left, gets a rapid COVID-19 test from June Lopez, Dignity GoHealth medical assistant, before a United Airlines flight to Hawaii at San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco, Thursday. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

  • A flight crew member shares his digital information with state officials after arriving at the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport Thursday in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)

  • Dignity GoHealth worker Brandon Hastings uses an Abbott ID Now rapid antigen testing machine for United Airlines passengers who took tests at the SFO COVID-19 rapid testing site at San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco, Thursday. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

  • A man looks out of a window toward a United Airlines flight destined for Hawaii at San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco, Thursday. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

  • Dignity GoHealth workers June Lopez, foreground, and Brandon Hastings use Abbott ID Now rapid antigen testing machines for United Airlines passengers who took tests at the SFO COVID-19 rapid testing site at San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco, Thursday. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

HONOLULU — Angela Margos was among the first passengers in San Francisco to get on a plane headed for Hawaii, where tourists beginning Thursday are no longer be required to self-quarantine upon arrival.

“Vacation, peace of mind,” said Margos, a nurse from San Carlos, California, of why she’s flying to Hawaii. “I need time to relax, unwind.”

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A new pre-travel testing program allowing visitors in Hawaii who test negative for COVID-19 to come to Hawaii and avoid the two weeks of mandatory quarantine — a measure that’s been in place for all arriving passengers for most of the year. Hawaii Island requires a second, on-arrival rapid antigen test to avoid the 14-day mandatory quarantine.

The state- and county-run testing programs are an effort to stem the devastating downturn the pandemic has had on Hawaii’s tourism-based economy.

Margos ran into hiccups with getting her test. She first did it at the hospital where she works, only to find out it wasn’t an approved site for United Airlines and the state of Hawaii. She then paid $105 for a drive-through test, but was later informed there was an error with that test.

Margo ultimately paid $250 for a fast-result test Thursday at the airport, which came back negative.

Even though she wound up paying more for COVID tests than her flight, she said it was worth it to avoid quarantine.

“Who wants to be on vacation for 14 days in a hotel?” she said. “Nobody.”

But gaps in the pre-travel testing program coupled with increasing cases of COVID-19 across the U.S. and the world have raised questions about whether Hawaii is ready to safely welcome back vacationers.

Officials touted the mandatory quarantine rule as an integral part of Hawaii’s early success in keeping the coronavirus at bay.

But when local restrictions were eased before summertime holidays, community spread of the disease spiked to alarming levels, forcing a second round of stay-at-home orders for residents and closures for non-essential businesses.

Opponents of the testing program have said a single test 72 hours before arrival — especially when coupled with the option to fly without a test and still quarantine — is not enough to keep island residents safe.

But Hawaii’s economy is almost entirely built around tourism and local families who rely on the sector to survive need to return to work.

More than 100 of Hawaii’s approximately 4,000 restaurants, bakeries and caterers have closed permanently and more than 50% predict they will not survive the coming months, officials have said.

Monica Toguchi Ryan, whose family has owned and operated The Highway Inn restaurant on Oahu for over 70 years, said the lack of tourism has been crippling.

“The restaurant and service industry has suffered so much during this pandemic,” Toguchi Ryan said. “Restaurants have not received any federal relief since the spring and are struggling to pay their expenses. Some restaurants have closed entirely, unable to pay for their rent, food supplies and staff wages.”

Hawaii, which has about 1.4 million residents, reported 10 additional coronavirus deaths Wednesday and more than 90 newly confirmed cases on Thursday. On Oahu, home to the famed Waikiki Beach and the state’s most populated island, the positivity rate was 3.3%, higher than the statewide average of 2.7%. On Hawaii Island, the rate was 3.1%.

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People who test positive in the state, whether on vacation or at home, are required to isolate and cannot fly until they no longer have the virus.

Associated Press journalist Haven Daley in San Francisco contributed to this report.

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