Traveling fixes urged during economic travails

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The state is not likely to make more pre-arrival testing changes to Safe Travels Hawaii until next year, despite urging from Hawaii’s visitor industry and community advocacy groups that recent modifications have had negative economic consequences.

Since Nov. 24 trans- Pacific travelers to Hawaii who cannot present evidence of a negative COVID-19 test upon arrival in the islands have not been allowed to bypass the 14-day passenger quarantine once their test results are received. Also, Kauai’s decision to opt out of Safe Travels Hawaii on Dec. 2 has decimated tourism on that island and led to confusion across the isles as not all Hawaii travelers understand the state’s geography.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Sunday that Safe Travels has screened 551,762 travelers since Oct. 15, including some 381,483 visitors. Green said Safe Travels is still processing 9,000 to 10,000 arrivals a day, but results likely would have been more robust, like maybe even 13,500 or 15,000 arrivals a day, without the late November, early December changes.

“We’ve seen cancellations,” Green said. “I share concerns about the economic and social costs.”

Green has asked Gov. David Ige to consider extending the pre-arrival testing window to four days, up from three. He’s also asked to add a requirement that travelers who want to bypass the 14-day quarantine must also take an post-arrival rapid antigen test at the airport.

The House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness has recommended allowing travelers who arrive with pending COVID-19 results to shorten their quarantine if they have a negative rapid test result completed upon arrival in Hawaii and produce a negative result from their original pre-travel test when received.

Each county mayor also has asked for tweaks to the pre-arrival testing travel program.

Green said he still stands behind his proposal, and he supports Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s plan to allow travelers who arrive with pending tests to test out of quarantine. He said so far, Kauai’s Safe Travels moratorium has not resulted in fewer COVID-19 cases on the island, which had five cases Saturday and four cases Sunday.

However, Green said Sunday, “I don’t anticipate any more changes until after New Year’s, based on what I’m hearing from top leadership.”

Keith Vieira, principal of KV &Associates, Hospitality Consulting, expressed disappointment and urged prompt corrective action.

“Safe Travels was working — tourism was starting to recover and COVID-19 cases had not spiked. But since the changes, cancellations have continued to outpace bookings, and we expect that to continue,” Vieira said. “Keeping the changes is irresponsible. All it’s doing is putting people out of work at a time when the government knows that they are going to be short on tax revenues and a lot of areas where money is needed to support our community.”

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The University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization economic pulse index as of Dec. 5 was at 48, which according to UHERO Executive Director Carl Bonham means that the state has recovered 48% of its economy from April 6, the height of the COVID-19-recession in Hawaii. Bonham said Hawaii’s economic pulse index isn’t expected to reach 100 for a few more years. In the meantime, Bonham said it’s important that the index keeps “moving up.”

So far, the index has been improving, but some worry that the economy could face even greater strain as federal support dries up and as tourism is disrupted by COVID-19 case surges and travel restrictions.

“The drop in tourism has had great social and economic costs,” said Mufi Hannemann, president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association. “The state needs to take a holistic approach to dealing with the pandemic.”

To be sure, new data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows that the coronavirus pandemic has left Hawaii families struggling to feed their children and pay their housing costs, and created a widespread need for access to mental heath care at a time when greater numbers don’t have health insurance and federal funding is running out.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation outlined the sobering data in a policy report to be released publicly today called “Kids, Families and COVID-19: Pandemic Pain Points and the Urgent Need to Respond.”

“Too many of Hawaii’s families with children were already struggling to make ends meet before this pandemic and now many more face devastating hardship and instability, unsure how they will afford food, housing and other basic needs,” Ivette Rodriguez Stern, junior specialist at the University of Hawaii Center on the Family, said in a statement.

With federal aid from the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act and the CARES Act expiring at the end of the year, child advocacy groups say that there is an urgent need to respond to the pandemic pain points that affect Hawaii’s children and families.

“Now is the time to unite and help children and families emerge healthy and strong from this crisis,” Deborah Zysman, executive director of Hawai‘i Children’s Action Network, said in a statement. “As our leaders begin to shape the state’s budget, let’s work together to raise the revenue needed to preserve the programs and services that assist our families every day.”

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