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Mayor: ‘We are looking at a later date’

Victorino addresses Aug. 1 easing of travel rules

A Southwest Airlines jet nears Kahului Airport on Tuesday afternoon. Plans for allowing flyers into Hawaii with a negative COVID-19 test starting Aug. 1 are running into turbulence. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Despite the state’s recent announcement that it will relax requirements to enter Hawaii come Aug. 1, Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino said Friday that the reopening may be delayed due to rising COVID-19 cases on Oahu and the U.S. Mainland.

“For most of us (mayors), we are looking at a later date than August 1st,” Victorino said during a news conference.

Gov. David Ige announced a little more than two weeks ago a prearrival testing program that would offer an alternative to the state’s mandatory 14-day self-quarantine if a negative COVID-19 test is proven by travelers on arrival.

Citing Hawaii’s high unemployment rate, the state’s reliance on tourism and dwindling federal aid, Ige set the launch date of Aug. 1 so businesses had time to prepare for reopening.

Since then, COVID-19 cases have risen across the nation, including on Oahu, and the state has been mum on important details for the prearrival testing program.

Ige and the four county mayors held long meetings this week to discuss the program, and some mayors indicated the launch date may be postponed.

All the while, hotels and other tourism-reliant businesses were making reopening plans for Aug. 1 to coincide with an anticipated influx in visitors.

Executive Director of the Maui Hotel & Lodging Association Rod Antone said that at least five major hotels were preparing to reopen Aug. 1 based on the state’s announcement.

Montage Kapalua Bay issued a news release this week, advertising its Aug. 1 reopening and special packages to mark the occasion.

If reopening is delayed, then hotels will have to adjust, Antone said.

“We’re hoping for a little more details, but we understand it’s a tough decision that the governor and the four mayors are making,” Antone said. “We are waiting for clarification. Hopefully, it will come soon.”

Uncertainty from the state places businesses in “limbo,” according to Pamela Tumpap, Maui Chamber of Commerce president.

“Businesses have always been clear that what they need from the administration is a set reopening date based on a solid plan that is communicated with the public,” Tumpap said Friday. “Every time a date is put forward, they work to gear up, but if that date is delayed the money and time spent is wasted, further reducing their ability to rebound.”

“At this point, large numbers of businesses are saying they only have one shot at reopening,” she added. “So, it is critically important for them to understand the basis of the governor’s plan so they can make a determination as to whether it is the right time for them to reopen.”

Meanwhile, business owners and tourism industry leaders say that an imperfect plan is better than no plan, and postponing reopening will have devastating impacts.

“The real problem with not knowing,” said Ron Williams, former Hawaii Tourism Authority chairman and tourism industry veteran. “Even if you start it Oct. 1, people will not be flocking to Hawaii. We will be lucky to get 20 percent of the people we had previously. If you delay it more, all you are doing is delaying opportunity to getting the industry going again.”

Maui small business owner Brana Gavrilovich of Aloha Hat Co. supports the prearrival testing program starting Aug. 1 and said no plan is perfect.

“We need to start somewhere,” he said Friday. “I don’t think the answer is to hibernate and close ourselves off, unless the government is willing to put out money and support us all. They are killing off a lot of dreams and hopes for business owners.”

Keani Le’a Barnes, a Maui small business owner and jeweler, said if Hawaii isn’t allow to reopen soon, hundreds, if not thousands, of businesses will close and/or declare bankruptcy.

“If we don’t restore tourism, locals will be forced to move out of state because they will no longer be able to work and afford Hawaii’s cost of living,” she said. “These restrictions are officially now more damaging than COVID itself.”

During the Friday news conference, Victorino said that if he had to guess, Sept. 1 may be the new target for reopening.

“Many of us are seeing surges not only on Oahu, but in the Mainland,” he said. “Many of those are prime markets, say for example, California. So the concern is there, there’s no question in my mind.”

Several facets to the prearrival program also need to be worked out.

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 pre-travel test cost and will be required to show printed or emailed pretest certification as evidence of a negative result.

However, the state has yet to discuss whether children will be tested, whether this only applies to travel from the Mainland United States or also from other countries and how this affects residents returning to Hawaii.

The prearrival testing timeline has also been debated. The state said a test should be done within 72 hours from departure, however, many have said test turnaround times are longer. Others said the testing window should be smaller to avoid exposure.

Ige on Friday issued a statement on the program.

“The mayors and I have had productive meetings this week about the pretravel testing program,” he said. “We are assessing the current situation in Hawaii and on the Mainland, and we’ll make an announcement when we are satisfied that the plans will protect the health and safety of our residents and guests.”

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

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