LIHU‘E — A bill that would create a uniform Safe Travels policy across the islands is moving forward in the state House, still with some hesitation from lawmakers, highly supported by the tourism and business sectors and opposed by vocal Kaua‘i officials and residents (see Gary Hooser’s comments, A8).
In its latest iteration, HB1286, amended on Tuesday by the House Committee on Pandemic and Disaster Preparedness and the Committee on Labor and Tourism, establishes COVID-19 testing requirements, exemptions and costs of post-arrival self-quarantining for the state. This bill would effectively restrict Kaua‘i from having separate rules as it has since November.
Kaua‘i has received some flack from House Speaker Scott Saiki, who in the past has called independent county rules confusing. Saiki is among those who introduced the measure.
Mayor Derek Kawakami, in a statement, reiterated the point that Kaua‘i faces different hurdles than other islands.
“We have always said that every island is unique in its own set of challenges,” Kawakami said. “Kaua‘i is the smallest county in the state with the least amount of resources, and we base every decision we make with this in mind.”
As of Tuesday, Kaua‘i currently has one active COVID-19 case for a cumulative case count of 210, including 179 confirmed locally, one probable and 30 tested off-island but reported after arrival.
“Our county’s response to the pandemic has resulted in the least fatalities and the lowest case counts,m” Kawakami said. “This has allowed our Department of Health and hospitals to administer vaccines to our residents, and has allowed businesses and activities to operate at Tier 4 — our least-restrictive tier.”
County Councilmember Felicia Cowden, chair of the Public Safety and Human Services Committee, testified at the hearing Tuesday, explaining her concerns about the measure.
“I do not feel comfortable with this bill,” Cowden said. “A critical piece for me is that the state should set the minimum threshold, not the maximum.”
This bill, Cowden said, “disempowers the counties” and removes a safety net the county has surrounded itself in.
“We live calm, and in the six weeks that we were open, we were not,” Cowden said.
From the state’s Department of Health’s perspective, Dr. Sarah Kemble reiterated that a 14-day quarantine still remains the most-effective means of stopping the spread of the virus.
Kemble said the state’s testing supply levels and staffing are resources that need to be considered.
“Right now, I think there is greater attention on the travel-associated risk because of the new variant viruses, and that is a true problem. However, what amplifies disease in our community and ultimately leads to the burden of disease where we see hospitalizations and deaths has more to do with community transmission.”
Trusted partners are required to send testing data to the state, but Kemble said that hasn’t been the case.
“It’s been difficult to draft conclusions from our data because we don’t have clear denominators of who is getting tested coming into the state,” Kemble said. “However, (of) the results, not a lot have been submitted.”
With an increase in travel-related cases, community-related cases also go up, Kemble said.
Kaua‘i’s Dr. Lee Evslin urged that now is not the time to enforce less-strict rules.
“Experts around the county, and around the world for that matter, are saying ‘don’t loosen up right now.’ The variants are out there. We are seeing the variant spreading in the Mainland,” Evslin said.
The Hawai‘i Lodging &Tourism Association and Chamber of Commerce of Hawai‘i both voiced support on behalf of its stakeholders.
“We need to strike the right balance,” HLTA President and CEO Mufi Hannemann said.
Hannemann said the bill provides incentives and provides a clearer direction for tourists.
“We now have to start pivoting from ensuring that health and safety standards are in place…and at the same time start opening up for people to come here,” Hannemann said.
A recent HLTA study indicated that “the single-most-prevalent reason that stopped travelers from visiting Hawai‘i was that testing requirements were unreasonable,” Hannemann’s testimony said.
Further, the chamber, which represents over 2,000 businesses, said that revenues have dropped an average of 45% from 2019 to 2020, and many businesses have had to cut staff and even close.
“Without tourists returning to the state, it is extremely clear that our economy will continue to wane with no relief in sight,” the chamber wrote. “Given our reliance on tourism, we must find a way to bring people back to our state to breathe life back to our local businesses.”
The bill, taking amendments from the DOH, passed through both the House Committee on Pandemic and Disaster Preparedness and Committee on Labor and Tourism.
From the PDP, there were eight votes for the measure, some with reservations, and a “no” from Rep. Tina Wildberger, who said this is an example of O‘ahu-centric politics being imposed on neighbor islands.
“Federal Emergency Management Agency learned a lot of lessons from not allowing local, on-the-ground leaders, to make decisions about their needs,” Wildberger said. “Just because we’re going to try to put uniform rules in place does not make reasonable people get on airplanes and fly here and magically recover our economy.”