HONOLULU — A judge said she will try to issue a decision Thursday on whether to grant a request to stop Hawaii from enforcing a quarantine on arriving travelers, meant to control the spread of the coronavirus.
A group of Hawaii, California and Nevada residents filed a lawsuit saying Hawaii’s emergency order is unfair and unnecessary. They gained the support of the U.S. Department of Justice, which filed a statement saying the quarantine discriminates against out-of-state travelers. The quarantine also applies to residents.
U.S. District Judge Jill Otake has said she will disregard the Justice Department’s statement when deciding whether to issue a temporary restraining order.
“In an overreaching response to the coronavirus pandemic, defendant has significantly and unconstitutionally restricted the travel rights of Americans,” the plaintiffs said in an application for the temporary restraining order.
The quarantine amounts to a “travel ban” meant to prevent people from coming to Hawaii, Harmeet Dhillon, a California attorney representing the plaintiffs, argued Thursday.
Hawaii Attorney General Clare Connors disputed the characterization, noting that thousands of people continue to travel in and out of the state daily.
In opposing a restraining order, the state argued the quarantine has helped Hawaii maintain a low rate of infection compared to other parts of the U.S.
As of Thursday, Hawaii’s health department had reported 946 positive cases and 18 deaths since the outbreak began.
Dhillon said there’s no way to be certain the quarantine is the reason for the low infection rates.
People have tested positive while in quarantine — proof that the mandate is effective, Connors said.
Imposing a quarantine in a tourism-dependent state whose “lifeblood” depends on welcoming travelers was one of the hardest decisions Gov. David Ige had to make, Connors said: “This is not something the state of Hawaii wanted to do.”
Hawaii’s restrictions are necessary to save lives, the state has argued. “The risks are exacerbated by our geographic isolation: If our healthcare system were overwhelmed, emergency assistance would not be readily available, and patients could not simply travel elsewhere for treatment,” the state said in opposing the restraining order application.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.
Hawaii could have enacted less restrictive measures, Dhillon said, noting that Ige announced plans for a pre-testing program similar to one in Alaska after the lawsuit was filed.
Starting Aug. 1, travelers may bypass the quarantine if they test negative for the virus before arriving in Hawaii.
Plans for pre-travel testing came after months of discussion, Connors said. “They don’t happen overnight and especially not after a lawsuit has been filed,” she said.
Both sides presented “outstanding oral argument,” Otake said, adding that she will aim to issue an order Thursday but might not achieve that goal.