Efforts in Full Swing to Safeguard Against COVID-19 Before Hawaii Reopens Tourism

By Edwin Quinabo

It’s like night and day.

The contrast of visitor arrivals to Hawaii went from an average of 30,000 a day in the month of May, 2019 to a little over a hundred per day this May. Last year, over 10 million tourists visited the state and generated $2 billion in tax revenues, supporting some 220,000 jobs. Since the state’s quarantine to curb COVID-19, with over 100 hotels closed temporarily, streams of income generated from tourism (for the state, employees, and hotels) have all dried up in a few weeks, triggering an unprecedented collapse of the industry.

Gemma Garampil Weinstein, President of UNITE HERE, Local 5 (union representing hotel, airport and healthcare workers), told the Filipino Chronicle about 80 percent of their 12,000 union members have temporarily lost their jobs. 

The state now faces the highest unemployment rate in the nation. And tourism, which makes up 20-30 percent of Hawaii’s economy, is still in lockdown.

Short of a COVID-19 vaccine (expected to take at least a year), there is no magic bullet to cure Hawaii’s tourism industry on life support. 

But with the state’s success in lowering rates of infections and mortality (among the lowest in the nation), isle residents are hoping that it could be time soon to launch an economic comeback when Gov. David Ige decides to reopen tourism.

Gov. David Ige said there is no explicit timeline for reopening tourism, which will depend on data and the community’s tolerance for risk. He said tourism is expected to remain closed until at least the end of June.

On May 18, the Hawaii COVID-19 Public Health Recovery Task Force — a coalition of leaders from government, business, healthcare, and nonprofits – presented to the Governor and the House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness (led by House Speaker Scott Saiki, and Peter Ho) a final report on areas the State should work to minimize the spread of COVID-19. 

The report will also help guide the Governor in making a decision on when to reopen tourism.

The Task Force’s recovery plan uses a color-coded Alert Model based on scientific evidence and drawing on best practices from around the world. This model shows when the state could begin to phase out some public access restrictions, decide what steps each sector must take to reopen safely, and understand and prepare for any new surge of infections.

The plan focuses on four areas: screening, testing, contact tracing and surveillance, and quarantine. The sooner progress is made in these critical areas, the sooner tourism can reopen.

The comeback to tourism
State Sen. Glenn Wakai, chair of the Senate Committee on Energy, Economic Development and Tourism, told the Filipino Chronicle “The revival of tourism will depend on factors beyond our control. It will be determined by a COVID vaccine being developed, or if the pandemic is brought completely under control, globally. Neither of which will likely happen in the next few months, or year.” 

He believes the state’s 14-day mandatory quarantine could possibly be lifted in July. “I am hopeful by then we can establish a COVID-proof screening process at the airport.” He also mentions robust testing and contact tracing procedures that could be in place by then.

1. Screening/Thermal sensor cameras. Experts believe installing $20 million in thermal screening devices at Hawaii’s airports is a key part of re-opening the state’s tourism economy. 

Airports in Asia and throughout the U.S. are launching new screening technologies that show a person’s temperature by using infrared cameras. This will help airport screeners identify possible COVID-19 cases (high temperature is one of the symptoms of those infected by the virus).

The use of this technology not only will help in curbing the spread of the virus, but instill public confidence to travel and resume some semblance of normalcy, experts say.

Besides airports, large scale screening checkpoints are planned at harbors. Screening may also include questionnaires, temperature checks or other non-invasive methods.

2. Contact tracing procedures. Contact tracing procedures is an old method public health workers have been using for years. They interview those who may have been exposed to a virus, then urge them to get tested and to isolate themselves. Then trace back how they might have contracted the virus. The DOH affirmed contact tracing is currently insufficient. It acknowledged that there needs more work in surveillance.

Surveillance is the second part of what makes contact tracing effective. Better surveillance allows for better data sharing. One method (not being used in Hawaii) is the use of smartphone apps to trace the whereabouts of COVID-19 patients, and the people who come into contact with them. This strategy is being used in countries like China where it is credited for helping to drop infectious rates. Some countries in the west view the procedure as draconian, a breach of personal privacy. But private tracing companies in the U.S. are already providing surveillance data to some counties in the U.S.

More contact tracers. The Task Force’s Contact Tracing and Surveillance Committee, the University of Hawaii (in partnership with DOH) committed to training 300 contact tracers over the next couple of months. This will enable DOH to eventually have access to approximately 400 contact tracers (including 100 from DOH) available for use which is closer to the recommended 30 contact tracers per 100,000 needed during a pandemic.

3. Widespread Testing. According to Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, the state of Hawaii as of May 20 ranks 27th in the number of testing nationwide. Health care providers are working to increase access to testing, including drive-up specimen collection for COVID-19. For the most part, tests in Hawaii are still done through private health care providers and will need a doctor’s order and insurance card. In parts of the mainland, drive through testing is open to the general public without insurance as a requirement. The DOH says the current rate of testing is 1,000/day, with capacity to do more, according to the Hawaii COVID-19 Public Health Recovery Task Force’s latest report.

Honolulu City Council Chair Emeritus Ron Menor and Councilmember Tommy Waters sent a letter to State Senate President Ron Kouchi and House Speaker Scott Saiki asking state legislators to seriously consider allocating funds to implement a proactive diagnostic viral testing of travelers entering Hawai‘i that produce test results within 24 hours.

Councilmember Waters said, “If the objective is to reopen our tourism economy in the coming months, then the state really needs to ramp up its testing capabilities now.”

Wakai said to implement some of these safeguards, they will work “with the federal government to pass on the costs of these new procedures onto the traveler. Taxpayers of Hawaii should not be on the hook for protecting ourselves from viruses imported to our islands.”

4. Quarantine. The key to effective quarantine is immediate isolation, including having an alternate location if necessary. Enforcement and adherence to isolation is also essential for success.

The Task Force also measures data in the following areas: 1. Disease Activity (Severity and Prevalence); 2. Capacity (Healthcare Supply, Contact Tracing, Diagnostic Testing); and 3. Response (Personal and Economic Activities). 

U.S. Congressman Ed Case told the Filipino Chronicle, “Our visitors will need to feel that Hawai’i is safe to visit or else they will go elsewhere if they travel at all. And here at home we will need to feel that visitors getting off planes and ships and staying in our hotels and eating in our restaurants and joining us at our stores and beaches are not spreading another round of the virus among us. Otherwise we will not welcome them to our shores and will not extend to them the spirit of aloha that lies at the core of our tourism industry. 

“So, restoring public confidence in travel to Hawai’i must be one of our top priorities. The good news is that much of what is needed to do so is in our hands.”

Case shared similar views to the Task Force of expanded testing and contact tracing as necessary steps to a safe reopening of tourism. He also mentioned the need for strong workplace safety standards to protect Hawaii’s frontline tourism workers.

Testing before coming to Hawaii (not included in the Task Force Report)
House Representatives Gene Ward and Bob McDermott have been working with the White House seeking clarification on whether Hawaii could require COVID-19 testing for all visitors before arrival. They said they found out on May 20 that nothing in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) or the United States of Transportation (USDOT) regulations prohibit the state from requiring such testing.

“This is the breakthrough we have been waiting for,” said Rep. Ward. “It signals to the Governor and the Legislature that they can now act to safely and systematically open our visitor industry.” 

But a passenger, at the moment, cannot be refused entry onto a place without a test.

Congressman Case has also asked the federal government to authorize Hawai’i to require COVID-19 testing of all passengers to Hawai’i before they get on the plane, not just after they get off.

Other ideas floated in the community
Other suggestions floated in the community (not a part of the Task Force) to safeguard a reopening of Hawaii’s economy and tourism include:

  • restuarants (on or off hotel premises) when they are allowed to reopen must reduce the number of tables and capacity;
  • employers (on and off hotel premises) be responsible to certify that their employees are COVID-19 free, which would take coordination with the Hawaii Department of Health (DOH);
  • companies (on and off hotel premises) be given clearance cards as “PASSED” similar to how the DOH does for restaurants;
  • retailors (on and off hotel premises) implement a temperature check on customers upon entering their establishments.

Recovery will take time
Experts believe even with safeguards in place, economic recovery and revitalizing tourism will take time.

University of Hawai’i Economic Research Organization (UHERO) Executive Director and economist Carl Bonham said it could take years for Hawaii’s economy to get back to where it was before the shutdown. 

“Tourism will still be very significant and the major export for the state. We have to develop other areas where we’re exporting everything from food to software, to clothing, to beer and all of those will help,” said Bonham.

Case said, “We must recognize that the recovery of tourism for our Hawai‘i and country will not occur overnight. It will be gradual and will take many months if not years to close in on the same levels as prior to COVID-19. The biggest challenge lies in restoring public confidence that visiting Hawai’i is safe.” 

Case believes domestic travel will recover faster than international travel. “This will guide our efforts to market a safe Hawai’i to those places with the highest likelihood of potential visitors soon. But that travel from wherever visitors come must be safe and cannot bring in passengers still infected with COVID-19.

“We can’t do all that we must do to recover tourism alone, and (we) need a coordinated response by our federal government for travel and tourism nationally.”

Wakai had similar assessments on tourism’s recovery. “Past disruptions (to tourism) show that it’s likely to be five years before Hawaii approaches the level of tourism we saw in February of this year. 

“I don’t see that there are any laws needed to help revive tourism. Prior to the pandemic the Hawaii Tourism Authority was tasked to better manage tourism. The agency needs to push visitors to where they are welcome and swat them away from areas where they are not. Simple when you’re starting from scratch. This is actually a golden opportunity for the industry to correct itself, rather than returning to the old economic models.” 

Our visitors will need to feel that Hawai’i is safe to visit or else they will go elsewhere if they travel at all. And here at home we will need to feel that visitors getting off planes and ships and staying in our hotels and eating in our restaurants and joining us at our stores and beaches are not spreading another round of the virus among us. Otherwise we will not welcome them to our shores and will not extend to them the spirit of aloha that lies at the core of our tourism industry. So, restoring public confidence in travel to Hawai’i must be one of our top priorities. The good news is that much of what is needed to do so is in our hands.

Ed Case, U.S. Congressman

14-day self-quarantine and on Reopening Tourism
The 14-day self-quarantine rule is expected to continue.

Visitors to Hawaii will still be forced to self-quarantine for 14 days, meaning that they must stay in their hotel rooms for two weeks before restrictions are lifted. They must fill out documentation listing their contact and lodging information and acknowledge that violating the quarantine is a criminal offense punishable by a $5,000 fine and up to a year in prison.

Enforcement of the self-quarantine has come under fire. Arrests of tourists for breaking the rule have made national and international news with some frequent tourists to the islands saying they won’t be returning. Industry experts say it’s a public relations nightmare that Hawaii will have to work hard at undoing when tourism reopens.

Some Hawaii residents have said enforcement is necessary and has served as a deterrent.

Marline Bustamante of Kunia said, “I’m pleased with the quarantine requirement. It has saved lives. Look at what’s happening on the mainland, so many infections. We’re doing good in comparison. If the tourists feel like it’s an inconvenience, well, too bad. We live on an island and if the virus spreads, we’re going to be in trouble. They (tourists) are not going to be coming if the virus is out of control, right? 

“So either way, we lose. Be strict on quarantine, we get criticized. But if the virus is out of control, tourists are not going to want to come. I say, be strict, at least we (Hawaii residents) can stay healthy that way.

“More tourists will come back sooner with a healthy Hawaii when it’s time to reopen than the few who are complaining right now,” said Bustamante.

“I’m all for reopening tourism when our leaders believe it is safe,” she added.

In April, the Hawaii Convention and Visitors Bureau put out a request to 170 top publications and trade magazines to stop promoting Hawaii right now, and in part, to avoid situations like what has been unfolding with bad press on quarantine enforcement.

Ryan Cabacungan-Agbayani, a Roberts Tours & Trans-Wiki Wiki Service Agent, said “some tourists are not following the mandatory self-quarantine. These violators are putting a lot of people at risk.”

He said he’s not really concerned about losing his job, even though it is related to tourism. “I still have a job and I have to work. But I’m concerned about who has COVID-19. We are all extra careful on what we do, what we touch. And every time we pick up passengers, our shuttles get sanitized.”

Maria Jo Farina of Ewa Beach, a retired corporate officer, said she supports reopening tourism at this time but only under specific conditions. “Travelers must undergo rapid testing for COVID-19 and yield a negative result within 24 hours of their departure before arriving at our state.”

On Hawaii’s quarantine enforcement, she said “Travelers, before booking for Hawaii should understand Hawaii’s strict quarantine rule. Airlines and travel booking companies should have warned tourists that they are to stay in their hotel rooms for a mandated amount of time upon arrival to Hawaii or risk arrest. So they must face the consequences if they violate the rules. Harshness or fairness of quarantine enforcement depends on the visitor’s attitude.”

Becky Gardner, a candidate for State House, District 20, told the Filipino Chronicle she doesn’t think Hawaii’s tourism should reopen at this time. “Not at this time, no. We can’t risk the lives of Hawaii’s most vulnerable until we have a robust testing protocol for all new arrivals. We just started the process of opening up businesses and social spaces for Hawaii residents. We need to monitor our own success at managing community-spread cases before we can think about increasing our exposure to travel-related infections. Public health must come first.

“We need to focus on the ways we can support those who’ve lost their incomes; and not just take the easy, but high risk option, and fall back on tourism. It is our over-dependence on tourism that created our economic vulnerability.” 

On quarantine enforcement, Gardner said, “I actually think quarantine enforcement can be more strict. Some of the incoming tourists have been so cavalier and selfish; and through social media, they’re encouraging others to do the same. Hawaii is a very attractive destination right now, due to our success at preventing widespread infections. We need to be very cautious and not undo all our hard work at controlling this. Having strict quarantine requirements and enforcement will help dissuade irresponsible tourists from proliferating this disease in Hawaii; especially since we don’t have a robust testing protocol in place.”

Melvin Cuartero, a bell man at Sheraton Princess Kaiulani Hotel, is temporarily out of work and collecting unemployment. He says he is optimistic that he will be rehired and optimistic of what the “new normal” will look like. But he believes tourism will not be the same as long as there is a global pandemic.

Protecting hotel workers
Garampil Weinstein said that Local 5 has been focusing on 3 main priorities: healthcare, job security, and safety at work and the community.

“We want to safeguard the health care coverage of all our members through this pandemic because it is a community issue—we cannot afford to lose health care in the middle of a pandemic as it will jeopardize our entire community. In addition, we are in communication with our employers to ensure that hotels do not use this pandemic as an excuse to implement long-term structural changes in our workplaces. Some examples are shutting down entire departments, automation, job combination, etc. Lastly, hotels need to prioritize the safety of both workers and hotel guests once we reopen. Some of our demands include testing of visitors and frontline workers, (provide) Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and proper training.” 

She said since the pandemic started, Local 5 has ramped up their organizing to make sure their members stay connected to the union and the resources they have are made available.

“We have partnered with community organizations, the City and the State to provide for food distribution, staffing for the City’s homeless transition shelter and we continue to dialog with our government leaders, tourism officials, local business leaders, other unions and non-profit groups on developing stringent safety guidelines for our safe return to work and eventual safe reopening of our tourism industry.”

Garampil Weinstein said Local 5 conducts weekly video meetings and sends out daily texts to their members. They’ve helped thousands of members with unemployment applications, referring them to financial resources, food bank information, childcare, kupuna care, mental health.

She said, “We are currently organizing our members to address hotel safety issues, and we are demanding through impact bargaining that our unionized employers agree to detailed operational safety measures in preparation for reopening hotels. For instance, we are advocating that no hotel or airport worker should be working without medical insurance coverage. Nor should any worker be forced back to work without pandemic safety precautions in place.”

An unprecedented undertaking
Since statehood, tourism has been Hawaii’s bread and butter. Revitalizing tourism will take a collaborative effort like never before from government, unions, the private sector and community. Cuartero has a more spiritual take, “only Divine intervention can resolve our problems,” he said. 

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