LIHU‘E — Gov. David Ige and Hawai‘i’s four county mayors met Thursday for the third time this week to try to address the increasingly urgent question of whether the state can safely reopen to tourists on Aug. 1. But the group adjourned late in the afternoon without making any final decision.
A source familiar with the meeting’s outcome said there is a strong chance Ige will reconvene the mayors again today, but no firm meeting time had been set.
At least two of the mayors — Kaua‘i’s Derek S.K. Kawakami and Honolulu’s Kirk Caldwell — expressed deep reservations throughout the day Thursday about the safety of sticking to the reopening plan Ige originally announced on June 24.
The Garden Island also contacted the offices of Hawai‘i County Mayor Harry Kim and Maui County Mayor Mike Victorino to seek comments on the situation. Neither mayor responded. Neither Kawakami nor Caldwell would speculate on when Ige may announce any change.
Although the timing of the plan to reopen the state to tourism has been controversial since the governor unveiled it, developments over the last few days have cast a pall over whether the goal is achievable. The situation underscored the high stakes and escalating uncertainties of the COVID pandemic for Hawai‘i.
New cases in the state have spiked. The state Department of Health announced Thursday that 36 new cases had been identified statewide, including one on Kaua‘i. That brings the statewide total to 1,130, including 43 on Kaua‘i. There have been 19 deaths statewide, but none on Kaua‘i.
Kawakami, Caldwell and others said the COVID pandemic is escalating out of control in several mainland states — most notably California, the source of more than 40% of Hawai‘i tourists.
A third urgent concern is that increasing case volumes in several parts of the country — not just California — have resulted in a 50% reduction in the amount of testing reagent’s allocated to Hawai‘i because escalating case counts have created shortages elsewhere more urgent than Hawai‘i’s. Roche Diagnostics, supplier of a large portion of the testing chemicals, announced abruptly on Wednesday that Hawai‘i’s supply is to be slashed from more than 5,000 tests a day to as few as 2,300.
In an interview with The Garden Island Thursday morning, Kawakami said Ige remained interested in the perspective of the different mayors. Kawakami said it remains possible that Kaua‘i County may have to implement its own modifications of the travel policy if the statewide policies and dates do not adequately assure the island’s safety.
“I did speak up for Kaua‘i, but at the end of the day, I’ve got to make this tough call,” he said. The ongoing discussions with Ige, said Kawakami, “identified how close we are to the edge. The landscape has changed.
“It doesn’t sit well with me and others. What exacerbates the problem is our testing capacity has evaporated overnight. Remember, all the states are competing for the same supplies. I couldn’t in good conscience say we are ready to open up on Aug. 1.
“If the state moves forward with an Aug. 1 reopening, we are asking for (at least) a grace period.”
He said one option open to Kaua‘i if Ige will not delay the statewide reopening is for the island to continue the 14 day quarantine for the next 28 days, through around the end of August.
“We’d be very open to working with the tourism industry,” Kawakami said. “For Kaua‘i, because we took a very strong approach to enforcing the governor’s original orders and his prohibition on rental cars, it’s a doable proposal for Kaua‘i. I’m not sure about the other counties.”
Kawakami acknowledged that enforcing the existing 14-day quarantine has been a challenge for the Kaua‘i Police Department and the Hawai‘i National Guard. KPD Chief Todd Raybuck did not respond to a request for comment from The Garden Island. While KPD has maintained control over the situation, a large scale influx of tourists could cause those plans to disintegrate.
A major deficiency in planning to potentially ramp up quarantine enforcement, Kawakami said, is that an online app critical to any enforcement effort does not yet exist and there is no date scheduled for it to be rolled out. The app would merge electronically data on an individual tourist’s background that will be gathered on an entry form with online confirmation of the tourist’s negative test results.
Kawakami said he was open to creation of what would amount to one or more “quarantine resorts,” where visitors whose movements are restricted could use facilities like the grounds, the pool and other amenities at some hotel whose management would commit to using it exclusively for quarantine customers.
The Garden Island learned that an informal committee of doctors and community leaders that has advocated for requiring visitors to show evidence of a negative COVID test taken within three days of arrival is considering an additional proposal for a dedicated testing machine to be purchased and stationed at such a quarantine hotel. The plan is under discussion but has not been formally introduced because the committee wants to avoid interfering in Kawakami’s planning process.
Ige has said a single test before arrival would become a requirement on Aug. 1. The informal committee has been pushing for requirement of a second test that would be administered after an incoming visitor undergoes six days of quarantine, possibly at a dedicated facility. The second test requirement drew conditional support from Caldwell.
At a Honolulu news conference, Caldwell said the meetings with Ige have been like “a marathon.” He said “we’re really struggling to determine what we do next to our economy. Without return of visitors, we’re going to be hobbling along.”
Like Kawakami, Caldwell said the earth has moved since Ige’s original announcement of the Aug. 1 reopening. “When the decision was made,” he said, “the situation was very different. Now, we see cases surging in markets where most of our visitors come from. COVID is on a rampage in California and they’ve lost control of the virus. We’re concerned that visitors may be bringing the virus with them.
“With all that, we are reevaluating the Aug. 1 deadline. Do you just say it’s suspended (or) push it off two weeks or a month? In a month, do we know what it’s going to look like in California. That’s a big unknown there.” But, Caldwell said, “we need to give a date and we need to make it a firm date as much as possible. With the conditions that are now in place, I don’t think it’s safe enough. Time is of the essence, but I don’t think we-re going to be rushed.”
Editor’s Note: This article has been edited to reflect accuracy.