Today is the day. At 6:44 a.m., Hawaiian Airlines flight 123 will arrive from Honolulu, presumably bringing the first tourists to enter Kaua‘i under Gov. David Ige’s new policy of allowing people who have had a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours to avoid quarantine.
Then, at 2:01 p.m. this afternoon, United Airlines flight 1684 will taxi to the gate to conclude the first nonstop from the mainland since the controversial single test procedure took effect. It will be coming from San Francisco.
In stark contrast to typical days at Lihu‘e Airport during COVID, today’s arrival board is full—with about 20 flights from Honolulu, Maui and various mainland airports, as distant as Boston.
The total number of tourists who may arrive today is unknown. On Tuesday, Lt. Gov. Josh Green speculated at a news conference that the tourism startup will be gradual. He estimated that about 3,000 tourists per day will enter the state. There is no projection of how many of them will be coming to Kaua‘i.
The arrivals will, of course, include inter-island travelers who live on Kaua‘i and are returning and residents of other islands coming here. Many of them will be doing so for work.
The new flood of visitors and tested returning Hawai‘i residents takes Kaua‘i into uncharted waters. It is a day virtually everyone who lives here has anticipated with a mix of fear, anger and anticipation. There is no question that the return of tourists will help relaunch Kaua‘i’s devastated economy. What isn’t known is what else the surge will do.
It will take a while to get Kaua‘i back to 1,000 visitor arrivals a day. But Dr. Lee Evslin is already worried about what that level will mean. “If we have 1,000 arrivals a day coming, (there would be) three infected per day, meaning 90 (new COVID cases) a month cruising into our island,” Evslin said, one of the organizers of the Kaua‘i COVID-19 Discussion Group. By contrast, Kaua‘i has reported just 59 total COVID cases and no deaths since the pandemic began.
On Friday, Mayor Derek S.K. Kawakami agreed there is widespread concern, and even fear, on Kaua‘i about the restart of tourism, but, he said, “you’re dealing with a community that is (experiencing) a lot of anxiety. Whenever you have any level of fear or uncertainty, these kinds of emotions can arise.
“I realize that, right now, people may have feelings about the risks that visitors may bring. But we as a community pose as big a risk (to ourselves), if not bigger, as anyone else. I would like to remind people that they should not base their reactions on fear.”
Rosemary Vali, a longtime resident of Wainiha on the remote North Shore, said her neighbors are anxious because of the uncertainty of Ige’s reopening orders which has not clarified the status of transient vacation rental properties. Many, she said, rely on the hospitality industry for their livelihoods and are perplexed that the governor has not clarified the status of TVRs.
“There are too many of them (TVRs) here,” Vali said, but nonetheless most residents don’t discuss the reception visitors are likely to encounter. “Most of us don’t even broach the subject,” she said.
County Councilmember Luke Evslin agreed that community anxiety may be broadly based. Evslin is the son of Dr. Lee Evslin. “If we got a two-test system, I think everyone on Kaua‘i would be welcoming visitors with open arms. One of my big fears with what feels like a premature reopening is that there could be hostility. People are frustrated and scared.”
Some in the community have speculated that physical confrontation between residents and visitors may develop. While Police Chief Todd Raybuck declined through a spokesperson to discuss ways the impending reopening could play out, County Prosecutor Justin Kollar discounted the possibility of actual confrontation.
“I think residents are understandably frustrated and anxious with the situation,” Kollar said. “I think it results from frequently shifting messaging and ever-changing policy we hear from the state level. It makes people feel like their leaders are not protecting them and that puts a lot of stress on people.
“There’s a community consensus that leaders at the county level have handled this pandemic well and the idea that the decisions are going to be made on O‘ahu instead of locally justifiably worries people. That said, I am not worried that our residents will react with violence. That is not who we are here.”
It was a sentiment that the mayor echoed. “Any kind of profiling or stereotyping or judging people is not acceptable,” he said. “That is not who we are as a community. We are a melting pot because of our differences.”
Kawakami said he hopes residents will realize that “we can be as safe as we decide to be.” He said the imminent arrival of tourists doesn’t change the basics that masking, physical distancing, personal hygiene and avoiding large gatherings remain the most effective COVID precautions.
County Councilmember Felicia Cowden said the situation has the potential to become an “ugly scene.”
“I am worried,” Cowden said, “that we will have a lack of elegance in how people are received. I think there is a lot of tension and hostility in the island right now.”
She said she was concerned about “the way the decision-making process played out on whether to require one or two tests and varying lengths of time in quarantine worsened the situations of many businesses.
“Businesses are worried about what if we open and then have a resurgence a month from now. We’ve taken a real big lesson on that from O‘ahu.”
The latitude to react to increases in caseloads, which is what Kawakami’s tiered reopening plan attempts, “is something we have to have as an ultimate last resort if we can’t maintain safety,” Cowden said.
Kaua‘i residents must keep their eyes on the ball. What’s important is that we all keep doing everything we can to protect ourselves.
And we should also insist that visitors observe all of these same procedures and respect our need to maintain our own safety and that of our friends and family member.
At a news conference on Maui a couple of days ago, that county’s district health officer, Dr. Lorrin Pang, had words that have just as much bearing on Kaua‘i as they do there. Mainland locations where many tourists will come from, Pang said, have “plenty of cases, but we kind of have to open up to business again.”
Visitors, he said, “have all kind of weird attitudes. Try to be nice and understanding. Some will be very cooperative. With the others, don’t ostracize them. Don’t give them stink eye. We will focus on those.”
Allan Parachini is a Kilauea resident, furniture-maker, journalist and retired public-relations executive who writes periodically for The Garden Island.