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Maui tourism leaders welcome prearrival testing date for visitors

Program details must still be ironed out, though

Minit Medical Urgent Care Hawaii registered nurse Melissa Robinson conducts a nasal swab test Thursday morning at a COVID-19 drive-thru testing site at South Maui Community Park. Looking on is National Guard medic Alyssa Primacio. Minit Medical owner Justin Prouty said there was a steady flow of people arriving to do the nasal swab and antibody tests. While more people were going for antibody tests Thursday, Prouty said he would like to see more people doing the nasal swab test, which can identify those who currently have the disease so they can be quarantined and have their contacts traced. He said people also can call one of the clinic’s locations in Kihei, Lahaina or Kahului to make an appointment to be tested without leaving their car. The last of three days of testing is set for 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. today at Keopuolani Park. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

Maui County tourism industry officials hailed Gov. David Ige’s announcement Wednesday to provide a prearrival testing option in lieu of quarantine for trans-Pacific travelers beginning Aug. 1 and said that the notice gives businesses vital time to prepare.

“It’s good news,” Rod Antone, Maui Hotel and Lodging Association executive director, said Thursday. “Like everyone else, we’re being cautiously optimistic.”

Ige unveiled a working plan that allows Hawaii visitors and returning residents an alternative to the 14-day mandatory quarantine if they are able to show a negative COVID-19 test result upon arrival. The quarantine will remain in effect for those who do not pretest.

Although important details have to be hammered out and tourism officials acknowledged the program isn’t perfect, the plan and date were well-received.

“We’re really excited about it,” Jim Coon, president of the Ocean Tourism Coalition, the only organization in the state that exclusively represents the charter boat industry, said Thursday. “This is the first opportunity we have to really start our business again.”

Minit Medical medical assistant Mylene Mochizuki takes temperatures Thursday morning

Recent state economic projections put the return of Hawaii tourism toward the end of July in an optimistic scenario and near the end of September in a pessimistic scenario. Pressure to reopen Hawaii’s visitor industry as the state’s economy continues to be in distress has been increasing, especially for the Neighbor Islands, which are more reliant on tourism dollars.

Hawaii went from the nation’s lowest rate of unemployment to the second highest in the course of several weeks, said Ige as he discussed the plan Wednesday.

Still, tourism-reliant companies will have to wait and see whether visitor numbers increase.

“We feel optimistic that we will have some people here — any increase is going to help us a lot,” said Coon, adding that visitors have contacted them about wanting to travel to Maui. “But then we’re going into the fall and fall has some of the slowest months of the year. We will just have to see what happens.”

Ige’s announcement gave the industry a one-month lead time, which is “vital” as operators work on complicated COVID-19 challenges, such as state rules that restrict passenger capacity to 10 people on boats, Coon said.

Clinical Labs lab assistant April Fernandez draws blood for an antibody test Thursday in Kihei.

“Without increasing capacity, (the travel pretest program is) worth nothing to us,” he said. “There is a handful of small, six-passenger boats who it’s good for, and I’m happy for them. But for the industry, 99 percent of us can’t do anything.”

Coon, who co-founded Maui tour company Trilogy Excursions more than 45 years ago, said the company hopes to reopen in August.

Trilogy, which has not conducted trips since the March shutdown of nonessential businesses, will look to rehire employees, depending on who feels comfortable coming back, he said.

For the hotel industry, many people want to get back to work, but safely, Antone said.

Citing Hawaii Small Business Development Center data, Antone said there were 13,000 Maui County jobs last August in the accommodations industry — compared to 5,700 in April. It was the same for food service jobs, which fell from 10,500 in August to 5,000 in April.

People wishing to be tested for COVID-19 Thursday morning are screened at South Maui Community Park.

May’s numbers likely will be worse, he said.

“It’s a tough situation,” Antone said. “We want to keep our community safe. I even had a relative die in the hospital because of COVID-19 — it’s very real to me.

“But also people are suffering, you know. They’re not working. They’re having to readjust their whole livelihoods. Even people only working part time at hotels are suffering, they’re even worse because they can’t collect UI (unemployment insurance).”

During the shutdown, Antone said hotels have been working hard, investing “a lot of money” into retraining employees, buying personal protective equipment, installing sanitizer stations, generating social distancing plans for high-traffic areas like restaurants and pivoting to keyless door entry, which costs “a couple hundred thousand dollars.”

Also, some Maui County hotels are working on renovation projects.

COVID-19 testing is conducted Thursday in Kihei

Antone said the prearrival testing program announcement provides an important date for the hotel industry.

“Now people can plan,” he said. “When it was up in the air, there was no way to plan. When should I bring my employees back? When should I start the training? Now that there’s a date, at least we can start taking the first steps.”

With the prearrival testing program, visitors and returning residents to Hawaii must get a PCR test prior to arrival from a state Department of Health-approved testing location. No testing will be provided on arrival at the airport, a state news release said. A PCR or polymerase chain reaction test usually involves collection of a sample via a swab and detects a current infection.

The Health Department anticipates requiring an FDA-approved PCR test from a federally certified lab, according to the news release. Travelers will be responsible for the pretravel test cost and will be required to show printed or emailed pretest certification as evidence of a negative result.

Still, the state has many details to work out, such as approved testing locations, the testing time frame prior to departure and how risks will be mitigated when some travelers who produce a negative test will mix with others who will go the quarantine route.

“The thing I don’t get about giving travelers the option to test before they come is won’t they then be on a plane for at least five hours with folks who may not have been tested or tested before it shows up on a test?” Council Member Tamara Paltin wrote Thursday on her Facebook page, noting that she supports Hawaii reopening safely to travel. “I mean if we are doing this, let’s get it right the first time, our economy can’t handle stopping and restarting either, and it’s residents and loved ones working in the hospitality industry who will be on the front lines of this ‘plan.’ ”

Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino emphasized Thursday that the safety of Hawaii residents is the priority for county mayors. When asked about how the state will ensure that someone who tested negative doesn’t contract the virus while encountering untested travelers, Victorino said Hawaii travelers will continue to be monitored for symptoms on arrival.

Also, he pointed to the importance of wearing face masks, which are mandated by most airlines in airport terminals and aboard aircraft, as a prevention measure.

“We will look for symptoms when they arrive,” he said at his daily news conference Thursday. “If they feel sick, then testing will be made available to them.”

Victorino said that travelers opting for the 14-day quarantine will go directly into quarantine. “Should they show any signs, very rapidly we will have a contact list of those who are on the plane,” he said.

It’s been 13 weeks since Hawaii’s mandatory 14-day self-quarantine went into effect, which Ige said was “one of the most effective measures” in helping the state control the spread of COVID-19. Hawaii’s rate of infection is among the lowest in the nation.

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.

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