Sheltered from virus, Kauai plans cautious return to tourism

  • Waves crash on the shoreline at The Cliffs at Princeville resort, one of several “resort bubble” properties on Kauai, Friday, March 5, 2021, in Princeville, Hawaii. The rural island of Kauai in Hawaii is one of the world’s most sought-after vacation destinations, but it has been nearly impossible to visit for most of the past year because of quarantine and other coronavirus restrictions. With the county’s resort bubble program, or Enhanced Movement Quarantine, participants must be tested 72 hours before they get to Hawaii and again 72 hours after arrival to be released from quarantine on Kauai. (AP Photo/Caleb Jones)

LIHUE — As the coronavirus ravaged other parts of the U.S., residents of this rural Pacific island watched safely from afar.

Kauai, one of the world’s most sought-after vacation destinations, has been nearly impossible to visit for most of the past year, with officials bucking pressure to ease quarantine rules as the state’s economy tanked.

As a result, Hawaii’s least populated county has been one of the safest places to be. Hair salons were open, kids went to school and played team sports, and residents enjoyed restaurants, bars and beaches without the typical hordes of visitors — or the fears of surging virus numbers. As of last week, Kauai has had only 217 confirmed COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic, compared with more than 28,000 statewide.

Now, local officials are loosening restrictions, saying early measures and the island’s departure from a state testing program that allowed in more people gave it time to build a strong foundation of public health. A unique “resort bubble” program also helped Kauai bring back some tourists and prepare to reopen more broadly.

“From a big picture society standpoint, it allowed Kauai to get to a baseline of sort of what the new normal was going to be in the middle of a pandemic,” Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami said.

The county’s resort bubble program, or Enhanced Movement Quarantine, has been running for almost three months.

It allows visitors to come to Kauai if they get two negative COVID-19 tests and spend three days either on another island or at a county-approved resort property. If they stay at one of the resorts, they wear monitoring devices but can roam the grounds and use amenities.

Participants must be tested 72 hours before they get to Hawaii and again 72 hours after arrival to be released from quarantine.

The program has caught at least six positive cases since its January launch.

“We really felt that us coming in here, we would be safe and we would also be safe to the residents,” said Victoria Lofton, who visited Timbers Kauai resort through the bubble program with her husband, Art. “We really respect them, and they’re really trying to do the right thing.”

She said it was a great way to get away from California, where the pandemic was raging.

“At home, we had one other family that we saw. We weren’t going out of the house,” she said.

On Kauai, where they own a unit on the resort, “we felt free.”

Next month, the island will rejoin the state’s Safe Travels program, which allows travelers to avoid quarantine with a single negative pre-flight test.

Health officials pointed to Kauai’s vaccination program as part of that decision. The county leads Hawaii in the number of residents who have received at least one dose, at 23%.

“By the time that we opt back in, we expect all hospitality and food service workers to have been offered vaccines,” said Lauren Guest, the state’s Department of Health preparedness planner for Kauai. “And they really are the ones who work very closely with visitors on the front line.”

Kauai’s strict path to reopening has set it apart in an already strict state.

For most of 2020, anyone coming to Hawaii faced a rigidly enforced 14-day quarantine rule. But the restrictions walloped the state’s tourism-dependent economy, and unemployment rates soared, including on Kauai.

The state launched Safe Travels in October, bringing back more visitors. But with that came more disease.

Kauai’s cases more than doubled in seven weeks, and it had its first and, so far, only death. It quickly opted out, citing worries about the state’s single-test scheme and the island’s limited health care capacity — Kauai has only nine ICU beds and 14 ventilators.

Kawakami resisted calls from lawmakers and the tourism industry to conform to a unified statewide system.

“We said, look, the timing is horrible, but vaccines are arriving in Hawaii,” Kawakami said. “We’re seeing a second and third spike happening on the mainland. … We really focused on making policy calls and making sacrifices on the economic side.”

The majority of Kauai’s COVID-19 cases have been linked directly to travel, Guest said.

While President Joe Biden and federal health officials have warned against lifting restrictions too soon, especially as vaccines become more widely available, states across the nation are easing coronavirus rules in a bid to get their economies back on track.

Kauai’s latest move is welcome news for businesses, even those that were able to maintain a core of local customers throughout the year.

“A lot of people, I think, weren’t able to change the way they did business,” said Rob Silverman, who shifted his Rob’s Good Times Grill in Lihue to takeout and eventually in-house service after the pandemic hit. “And those are the people that really struggled.”

Lance Keener, who owns Ohana Fishing Charters, said he lost nearly all of his business when the county shut down last March. Things haven’t gotten any better, and he looks forward to when the state lifts restrictions in April.

“We were doing really good and almost pretty much debt-free, making money,” Keener said. “And all of a sudden now we’re, you know, I think back further than square one.”

But some are wary of allowing back lots of tourists.

Steve O’Neal, who moved his family to Kauai from California last year, worries lifting measures that have kept the island safe is premature, especially as new variants of the virus emerge. Both the South African and U.K. variants have been found in Hawaii.

He also points to recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which advises against travel but says if people must get on a plane, they should undergo two tests and a quarantine on either end of a trip.

“It’s kind of an inconvenient truth that Hawaii is going against the guidelines of the CDC,” O’Neal said.

Still, he appreciates that Kauai officials held their ground and put locals’ health and safety first.

“They’ve really prioritized families and kids. And, you know, people have their after-school programs. People have their school programs. I mean, that’s a big deal.”

14 Comments
  1. andrew March 18, 2021 8:22 am Reply

    I read this yesterday on a national news source. Informative, and fairly thorough. But it’s also a blatant advertisement saying that Kauai is re-opening and we are covid-free. Ok. So for the millions of people that read it, Kauai will be a covid free destination that is ready to welcome them with one test before travel. This is very attractive to travel-minded folks. Here we go, fingers crossed. Hope Hanalei Road and Wailua Bridge holds up.


  2. Diane Hale March 18, 2021 12:41 pm Reply

    The Kapaa traffic is horrendous already with half the Wailua Bridge closed – we are not ready for tourists to return to driving around the island. What measures have been put in place to protect the ‘aina and the locals who don’t work in the tourism industry? I agree with Steve O’Neal who worries that lifting measures that have kept the island safe is premature, especially as new variants of the virus emerge. Both the South African and U.K. variants have been found in Hawaii. In the article, he also points to recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which advises against travel but says if people must get on a plane, they should undergo two tests and a quarantine on either end of a trip.


  3. randy kansas March 18, 2021 12:43 pm Reply

    what a joke, this place was barely surviving with tourism, sure the heck permanently damaged from lack of tourism….. without high taxes, mostly paid by rich property owners, this place would be bankrupt;


  4. Hey Steve March 18, 2021 1:37 pm Reply

    Hey Steve, you’ve been in kauai for 1 year….and lobbying your opinion and quoting outdated cdc guidelines to stay closed off to travel. Seems like your either not depending on tourists to support your family? You don’t know the plight so many generational businesses and families suffering. Due to strict overbearing covid proclamations from kawakami. Your opinion is a mute point. After maybe 5-10yrs go ahead and circle back with an opinion once you are a little more educated about our island.


    1. Mike March 19, 2021 12:55 am Reply

      Hey you,

      Stick to the facts, please. CDC guidance on travel is STILL that travel should be delayed if at all possible. even for vaccinated individuals. Vacation travel during a pandemic hardly qualifies as essential travel. STOP spreading misinformation. Bother to read CDC guidelines before summarizing them. Steve O’Neil’s point is neither moot nor mute. Moreover, his point has nothing to do about “being educated about the island”. His point is based on medical guidelines which he is more than qualified to discuss. Just because you don’t like what those guidelines are, doesn’t mean you are justified him in attacking him with the tired, “you’re not from around here so your opinion doesn’t matter” nonsense. Why don’t you get a little more educated on the medical side. And while you’re at it, look up the definition of mute vs moot.


  5. Tom March 18, 2021 2:14 pm Reply

    I think if one has both doses of the Covid-19 vaccination, carry the card proving it from CDC and can pass the the temperature test, one should be able to come to Kauai without the fuss.
    Still have to wear masks yes!
    Tom
    Coming next October


  6. MamaTree March 18, 2021 4:42 pm Reply

    Article clearly written by someone who has no idea what life on Kaua’i has been like for the past year (save the empty beaches), and how our leaders continue to stoke residents’ COVID fears to this day: “. . . Hair salons were open, kids went to school and played team sports, and residents enjoyed restaurants, bars and beaches without the typical hordes of visitors — or the fears of surging virus numbers.” The AP clearly has no publishing standards, and no shame.


  7. Michael Gennet March 18, 2021 6:10 pm Reply

    I’m writing from Rancho Mirage, CA in the desert. My wife and I have owned a timeshare in Hanalei Bay Resort for 23 years. We love the island and the North Shore, in particular. We have had 2 vaccinations and 2 negative COVID tests this year. We plan to return to Hanalei in October for 2 weeks and hope there are no barriers to entry that would make our trip untenable.


    1. Mike March 18, 2021 10:26 pm Reply

      We are another group of preflight vaccinated cleared inter island visitors that got the runaround at the airport and had to go back to Honolulu after flying over from Maui. Homer Simpson Safety Officer Kawakami has ambiguous, poorly stated entry policies and even worse support apps for those of us who are trying to be responsible and care deeply about your(our) island. Just ask some of the gate agents about how many potential cash toting tourists are turned away daily because the actual policies don’t line up with QR apps or CDC guidelines. Maui and Oahu thank you in advance for your tourist dollars.


  8. Carl March 19, 2021 3:53 am Reply

    My job is based on tourism and have been furloughed since a year ago. Our Mayor has been very proactive and stood up to the pressure for the most part. I feel the pain financially too. But until the mainland can get it’s act together, we’re doomed if we prematurely let these people visit. Sorry. If you’ve noticed, Maui is leading in covid cases lately. Not a good sign, no matter what mitigation you lay out. Sadly, it’s not a matter of “if”, but “when” will Kauai have to completely shut down again. Is this what you want?This is a pandemic people. Feel fortunate we live in such a beautiful place, alive. Waiting two or three more months isn’t going to hurt the majority of island. And shame on the promotion of visiting Las Vegas and anyone considering visiting this plague drenched get away. People should boycott businesses such as Vacations Hawaii.


  9. Ellen March 19, 2021 10:23 am Reply

    And once again the responding comments are more insightful than the article itself. One thing the pandemic has left in its wake is a schism on Kauai – do you see a light at the end of the tunnel or is that an oncoming train?


  10. Doug March 19, 2021 2:07 pm Reply

    I appreciate Mayor Kawakami’s efforts in putting residents safety before tax revenues. Yes, tourism and hospitality have suffered greatly. Some small businesses will not make it and some will just start over. So it goes with businesses who rely on tourism and hospitality jobs in any economic climate. Without our strict policy’s more would have died, many would have become very ill and some of those would have suffered long term conditions. We avoided much of that suffering. Our mayor and our County Council made a difference. They mitigated the suffering and the minority of you who disagree are still here to debate. Be thankful.


  11. CommonSenseish March 19, 2021 3:05 pm Reply

    The County had State have had a full year to get the roads fixed, updated, etc. I mean, maybe if you didn’t have 3 guys standing around watching 1 guy do all the work, you may have gotten a little more done. I don’t know. Just sayin.

    Can you at least hire someone that can draw a straight line for the roads and also someone that knows what TIMING means to correct the traffic lights? Are those even requirements for those positions because whoever is doing them now obviously just got in because they knew someone.


  12. judi March 20, 2021 2:47 pm Reply

    I am very grateful to our mayor for handling this in the very best way from day one He had the courage and foresight to be proactive when cases were increasing after Kauai joined the other islands ( with many opposed to this ) in allowing visitors. After a quick spike in cases he immediately took action to opt out of the ‘safe travels’ policy. I appreciate that Governor Ige approved . As we wait for April 5 I can only hope that Kauai will remain the safest place in the country. Mask wearing and social distancing must be continued and we will get through this as a community.


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