LIHU‘E — Sheraton Kaua‘i Resort General Manager Chip Bahouth wants uniformity.
“The current travel mandates that we have in place are not consistent which forces Kaua‘i into a situation where we’re not very competitive with the other islands,” Bahouth testified Wednesday in support of the state moving forward with House Bill 1286 which would blanket a state-wide Safe Travels program.
Wednesday, the state House’s Committee on Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs amended the bill further into a second draft, clarifying that the governor, not the incident commander, shall establish statewide conditions for automatic exemptions, and adding a new section that would require a state legislature resolution to suspend it.
Both Kaua‘i representatives on the committee, Rep. Nadine K. Nakamura and Rep. James Tokioka, voted in opposition to the bill, which passed out of the committee.
This bill would restrict the County of Kaua‘i from enacting additional rules to the state’s already established set, like its on-going post-arrival test option to be released from quarantine.
These types of additional rules that currently exist, many including hoteliers and business owners say leads to not only confusion but unnecessary devastation.
The Grand Hyatt Kaua‘i is the county’s largest private employer. The hotel initially shut down in March and reopened in November after the state started its Safe Travels program.
When the county began to see a spike in cases and the county opted-out of the program, effectively re-enforcing a 14-day quarantine. The hotel shut down again.
“We employ 850 amazing employees whose unemployment is running out and whose medical coverage is in question from month to month,” Director of Sales and Marketing Katy Britzmann said.
As vaccine distribution ramps up across the country, Britzmann believes “now is the time to come together with a consistent safe travels policy that serves all of the islands.”
And that’s an opinion shared by the Department of Health and Hawai‘i Emergency Management Agency.
Former mayor JoAnn Yukimura, on the other hand, spoke in opposition of the bill, along with hundreds of written pieces of opposition. Much of the testimony in opposition to the bill lauded the efforts of Mayor Derek Kawakami and low case counts on Kaua‘i.
“All we’re asking for is a safe program,” Yukimura said, again pointing to the sharp uptick in cases Kaua‘i experienced when the county was briefly open and fully operating on the state’s Safe Travel program which allows out-of-state travelers to bypass a mandatory quarantine with a negative COVID-19 test 72 hours prior to arrival.
The county allows the Safe Travels rules for inter-island flying with a stipulation that the person traveling has been on another island for at least 72 hours. Another option travelers have is to stay at an Enhanced Quarantine Movement Resort Bubble, which allows them to freely move about a contained hotel property. After three days at one of these properties, a traveler may take a COVID-19 test. Upon a negative result, they will be released. There is no such post-arrival test option for those who wish to stay at a private residence.
Hawai‘i Lodging and Tourism Association President Mufi Hannemann said these various rules compared to the other islands is leading to confusion.
“While we recognize the importance of ‘home rule’ and allowing the county mayors to decide what is best for their communities, the lack of cohesion in rules for travelers and returning residents to Hawai‘i has led to significant confusion, further harming an industry already suffering an unprecedented economic downturn.”
Pono Hawai‘i Initiative Executive Director Gary Hooser said the bill restricts flexibility in a dynamic COVID environment. Hooser suggested working on policies to get the business open would be preferable to a law. “Taking away the county’s right to protect itself is not the way to go,” Hooser said.
Further, Yukimura said that’s a “communication problem, not a policy problem.”
“If you approve this bill based on visitor confusion, it will just reinforce the perception identified in a recent OmniTrak poll that Hawai‘i being run for tourists at the expense of local people.”
It’s about striking a balance, Hannemann said.
“In trying to maintain that balance of adhering to health and safety protocols which have always been our priority and at the same time ensuring visitors could come here in a meaningful, hassle-free way,” Hannemann said.
This story was updated on Thursday, Feb. 18 to correct a misattribution. The measure is House Bill 1286, not Senate Bill 1286.