Taking it slow

  • People exit the terminal after arriving at the Hilo International Airport on Tuesday. (Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald)

  • Southwest Airlines employee Jaren Layaoen helps a traveler check in for her flight to the mainland at Hilo International Airport on Tuesday. Gov. David Ige on Tuesday announced that more visitors from Japan could start visiting Hawaii in a few weeks, thanks to a new program that will allow them to avoid quarantine if they test negative for COVID-19 up to 72 hours prior to arrival. (Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald)

When visitors from Japan are allowed to travel to Hawaii without being quarantined — which could happen as soon as Nov. 6 — officials aren’t expecting the demand seen when the state reopened for mainland U.S. tourist arrivals on Oct. 15.

That’s because Japanese visitors who are allowed to sidestep Hawaii’s quarantine with a negative COVID-19 test from one of 21 of the state’s “trusted partners” in Japan will still need to quarantine when they return home.

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“The 14-day mandatory quarantine measures continue to apply for travelers returning to Japan,” said Hiroshi Kuroda, Japan Airlines’ Hawaii regional manager, during Gov. David Ige’s Monday afternoon press conference at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu. “Therefore, it may take awhile for regular travel to fully return.”

The resumption of Japan-to-Hawaii travel won’t be mutual at first, either, as U.S. passport holders without essential business won’t be allowed to enter Japan.

Ige said trusted testing partners in Japan will be free to start administering the “gold standard” nucleic acid amplification test, or NAAT, for the purpose of travel to Hawaii starting Nov. 3.

Similar to the program instituted on Oct. 15 for arriving travelers from the U.S. mainland, Japanese visitors will be required to test negative for COVID-19 within 72 hours prior to departure.

“This adds an additional layer of safety for our community as we take important strides to revive our economy and get people back to work,” Ige said.

Three airlines — JAL, All Nippon Airways and Hawaiian Airlines — are expected to fly a total of 10 flights from Japan to Hawaii in November, all to Honolulu.

Ross Birch, executive director of Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau, told the Tribune-Herald earlier this month he expects direct flights from Japan to touch down at Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole “sometime in November.” But Avi Mannis, Hawaiian Airlines senior vice president for marketing, cast doubt Monday upon that optimistic timetable.

“We think it’s going to be a slow and gradual return of demand for travel from Japan. Over the long term, we would hope to be able to return travel there, as well,” Mannis said.

Japanese travelers will be allowed, however, to catch an interconnecting flight from Honolulu to the Big Island, as long as they don’t leave the Honolulu airport. And like mainland arrivals, they can avoid the 14-day interisland quarantine by passing a rapid antigen coronavirus test at the Kona airport, Hilo International Airport or Waimea-Kohala Airport.

Those who fail the antigen test, which produces results in 15 or 20 minutes, would immediately be given a polymerase chain reaction, or PCR test, and would have to quarantine until a negative result is received, usually in a day or so.

But Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim also said the county is re-evaluating the need for post-arrival testing at the airports. The mayor said that between Oct. 15 and Monday, the county had 7,260 trans-Pacific arrivals, 30 of whom tested positive with a rapid antigen test. Of those, only three tested positive on a follow-up PCR test — a rate of just four positive results in 10,000 tests.

As for Ige’s plan to reopen Hawaii to travel from Japan, Kim said it’s “a very good restart to the economy.”

Lt. Gov. Josh Green, a Big Island physician, said that in the first 12 days of testing mainland U.S. arrivals in Hawaii, pre-travel tests were administered to 94,718 individuals — 62,679 visitors and 32,039 returning residents, a ratio of about 2-to-1 visitors to residents.

Of those, Green said 81,485 were exempted from the 14-day quarantine “because they followed all the processes that the governor laid out.” Another 10,047 individuals “went into quarantine because they did not have the accurate test, the test from our trusted partner, or any test whatsoever.”

Green said the COVID-19 caseload is currently under control.

“In the last seven days, we’ve seen an average of 91 new cases of COVID in Hawaii … a 2.2% positivity rate — which is very low, lowest in the nation,” he said.

Green said that on Monday, the daily average statewide number of people hospitalized for coronavirus-related illness in the previous seven days was 63.

“We have been high at 318 before, so we’re down 80%,” he said.

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Reporter Stephanie Salmons contributed to this story.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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