Bill that would allow statewide travel restriction plan deferred

  • ROTH

  • HANNEMANN

  • WAKAI

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald A traveler waits to be tested for COVID-19 after arriving at the Hilo International Airport on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020.

  • A traveler checks-in with an employee with the Safe Travels application at the Hilo International Airport on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020. (Kelsey Walling/Hawaii Tribune-Herald)

A bill that would allow Gov. David Ige to impose a statewide COVID-19 travel restriction plan stalled Monday and is likely dead.

During a joint hearing of three Senate committees, legislators ultimately voted to defer House Bill 1286 less than a week before a vital deadline.

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The bill contains several provisions relating to the state’s Safe Travels program, but the most significant is one permitting the governor to establish statewide conditions for traveling to the state without quarantining. This would end the current practice, where each county is free to impose its own rules at the discretion of their respective mayors, as Hawaii and Kauai counties have done.

According to the text of the bill, the fact that counties are allowed to opt out of the program has led to a “patchwork of requirements across all counties that are difficult to navigate for visitors and residents alike and, as such, is compounding the economic impact of the pandemic on the state.”

However, the bill has not been universally embraced, with scores of testifiers opposing it during previous committee hearings — including Hawaii County Mayor Mitch Roth.

During a February hearing in the House, Roth submitted testimony opposing the bill, writing: “While it appears well intended, the bill will result in sweeping provisions that create a ‘one size fits all’ approach to addressing the health and safety of both our travelers and residents, without regard to the unique conditions faced by our island counties. Further, it usurps the authority of mayors to protect their communities in a manner that best serves them.”

No other mayor submitted testimony about the bill, although the Kauai County Council also opposed it, citing the success of Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami’s own COVID-19 travel restrictions.

“Our residents’ health and safety must be prioritized over the tourism industry and convenience, and each county should continue to be empowered to protect their own interests accordingly,” wrote the Kauai council.

But the bill had widespread support as well, largely from businesses and other commercial interests, on the grounds that a universal travel policy would make it easier for travelers to visit the state and support the local economy.

“While we recognize the importance of ‘home rule’ and allowing the county mayors to decide what is best for their communities, the lack of cohesion in rules for travelers and returning residents to Hawaii has led to significant confusion, further harming an industry already suffering an unprecedented economic downturn,” wrote Mufi Hannemann, president of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association.

There was little discussion about the bill during Monday’s hearing.

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“(We’ve) conferred, and we can see that there’s the necessity for some level of flexibility,” said Sen. Glenn Wakai, chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy, Economic Development and Tourism — one of the three committees, along with those on Health and Public Safety, that discussed the bill. “We did contemplate the idea of a travel passport, but that was seen as sort of not quite ready for prime time … so (we’ve) decided that we will defer any action on HB 1286.”

Because the bill has until the end of the week to be referred to its final committee in the Senate, the measure appears to be dead. However, Honolulu Rep. Linda Ichiyama said during a Monday meeting of the House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness that the text of HB 1286 still could be transposed into a different Senate bill.

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