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Unions open to resort bubbles with safety

Ige OKs framework for counties; plan still in early stages

The Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa is pictured in 2016. Hotel Food and Wine Festival photo

Unions representing workers at Maui’s larger hotels said Thursday they’re open to the idea of resort bubbles but emphasized the need to collaborate with resort companies on stringent safety measures to reduce risk of staff exposure.

“Local 5 welcomes measures like ‘travel bubbles’ that offer our members the opportunity to get back to work, but no one should have to worry about work endangering the safety of our families and the community,” Eric Gill, Unite Here Local 5 financial secretary and treasurer, told The Maui News. 

On the heels of a decision to delay a pretravel testing program, Gov. David Ige announced Thursday an order that allows counties to establish resort bubbles as another way for travelers to quarantine.

The concept of resort bubbles, where travelers would stay on-site bounded by geofencing tracking, has been floated in the last month as a way for Neighbor Islands’ hard-hit hotels to weather the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Aug. 13, officials with Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea and Wailea Beach Resort unveiled plans to a group including state Sens. J. Kalani English and Gil Keith-Agaran, Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino and The Maui News.

While government officials emphasize that planning is still in the early phases, residents have been vocal online about various concerns, such as hotel staff safety, geofencing logistics and possible intermingling among tourists and residents. Mayors of Maui and Kauai counties discussed resort bubble ideas Thursday and addressed rumors about the privatization of beaches, which they say are unfounded.

The emergency proclamation empowers counties to set up “Enhanced Movement Quarantine” (EMQ) through agreements with resort or hotel facilities, where participating travelers would be required to stay in defined geographical areas with limited contact to those not subject to the 14-day self-quarantine, the order said. 

“We continue to work on digitizing and refining the travel screening process, as well as developing enforceable, safe alternatives to self-quarantine,” Ige said.

The order also extends the 14-day interisland and trans-Pacific travel quarantines through Sept. 30. 

A state program to bypass the quarantine with a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of departure was delayed by the governor to “at least” Oct. 1 due to a surge of daily triple-digit COVID-19 cases on Oahu.

Because visitors continue to travel to Hawaii, with reports of some of them evading quarantine and requiring the expending of resources for enforcement, the program was seen by industry leaders as an option to reopen tourism more safely.

Still, Victorino said Thursday afternoon that he doesn’t foresee the reopening of tourism until Oct. 1 or later and declined to offer a timetable for the resort bubble launch on Maui.

“We are still in the beginning phases of all these aspects, and so we have pushed off the reopening of Hawaii to at least October 1st, if not longer, depending on contact tracing, as well as digital monitoring, as well as testing before they arrive here in Hawaii,” he said in response to a question from The Maui News.

Economic studies have shown that the Neighbor Islands are more reliant on the visitor industry. The unemployment report released Thursday showed Maui County with the highest jobless rate in July of all the four counties — 21.3 percent. Honolulu’s jobless rate was 11.1 percent.

The pandemic has shut down all the luxury resorts in Wailea, including the Grand Wailea Resort & Spa, the largest private employer on the island.

ILWU Local 142 represents workers from the Grand Wailea, Andaz Maui at Wailea, Hotel Wailea, Hyatt Regency Maui Resort and Spa, Kaanapali Alii, Kaanapali Beach Hotel, Lahaina Shores Beach Resort, Maui Beach Hotel, Montage Kapalua Bay, Napili Shores Resort, Royal Lahaina Resort, The Westin Maui Resort & Spa and The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua. The union said the unemployment rate on Maui is more than 20 percent and will likely increase with the decision to push back the trans-Pacific quarantine to October.

“With the additional $600 unemployment insurance having ended and with evictions on the horizon, it is vital to help figure out a way to safely reopen some of the economy,” said Donna Domingo, ILWU Local 142 president. 

“The concept of ‘resort bubbles’ is intriguing and could help provide jobs while keeping the community safe and healthy,” she added. “We will work with the hotels to ensure strict safety measures are implemented and ensure hotel workers, who will be at high risk of exposure, are properly protected, trained and educated.”

Unite Here Local 5, which represents hundreds of hotel workers around the state and workers at the Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa and the Ka’anapali Beach Club on Maui, held demonstrations last month rallying for worker safety and insurance benefits.

Gill said that any resort bubble plan must include “stringent safety measures” to ensure worker and operational safety. 

“To achieve this, workers need to be directly involved in the planning and execution of safe hotel operation plans,” he said.

Rod Antone, executive director of the Maui Hotel & Lodging Association, said Thursday evening that the association’s Maui hotels agree with the unions on worker safety and are taking “every precaution” leading up to possible reopenings, including screening employees on site, staggering arrival times, avoiding gatherings or groups and having doctors on call and mobile testing on site.

“We absolutely agree with the unions,” he said. “No one should come to work fearing for their safety — that’s true in the pre-COVID and post-COVID world.”

Local 5 member Donna Esteban, Sheraton bartender and cocktail server, said that she wants to go back to work but wants to go back safely. She added that the burden needs to be shared by residents and nonresidents.

“Myself like everybody else, we need a job and want to go back safely,” she said. “But how are we going to go back to work if the public is negligent right now about the rules? How are we going to move forward (with reopening) if we can’t even follow the simple orders now?”

A state news release said the proclamation calls for:

• Travelers entering the state as part of an EMQ program complying with all state, county and industry safety and health standards and completing all mandatory documentation.

• Restricting EMQ participating travelers to clearly defined geographical areas and ensuring limited contact with those not subject to self-quarantine. Geographical areas may include adjacent shoreline areas, where beach access is permitted by relevant state and county authorities, provided members of the public are given notice of the EMQ and are not prohibited from accessing the shoreline area.

• Safety, monitoring and enforcement measures.

• Providing capacity for isolating any positive or suspected COVID-19 cases and necessary accompanying services (food, necessities, etc) for those people.

• Participating travelers to sign waivers confirming they have voluntarily elected to participate in the EMQ, will voluntarily agree to electronic monitoring and other requirements and waive some privacy protections, including to health information as necessary to accomplish public health purposes.

• Participating travelers to bear all costs related to entering the EMQ, including monitoring, isolation, care, lodging and other expenses.

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

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