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Airport sees long wait times, tests from nontrusted partners

Still, many flyers praise the state’s safety efforts on first day of pre-travel test program

Elsa and Emma Jimenez wheel their bags toward the exit of Kahului Airport’s Baggage Claim area Thursday. Elsa Jimenez said her family arrived with negative tests from a provider not approved by the state and had to go through additional screening. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

KAHULUI — Testing with nontrusted partners and wait times of more than an hour for post-arrival screening were among the challenges at Kahului Airport as the state rolled out its trans-Pacific pre-travel testing program Thursday.

Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino, who was surveying the terminal as the first trans-Pacific passengers deplaned at about 11:30 a.m., said he knew there would be bugs to work out. He said the program is a work in progress.

“Let’s get through the first day or two, and then we can start to recalculate if we have to and be flexible to change,” he said.

Still, most flyers interviewed by The Maui News on Thursday praised the program — that allowed them to avoid quarantine with a negative COVID-19 test — for its safety and efficacy.

“I think all states should have this, to be honest,” said Eden Yetay, a Los Angeles resident who traveled to Maui to stay at a resort with friends. “COVID is increasing day by day, and it’s so unpredictable. We don’t know when the vaccine is going to come out. So I think it’s a really good precaution to take because you never know who enters into different cities.”

Roberts Hawaii screener Tammy Ma‘afala clears arriving passenger Kellsie Schink of Reno, Nev., on Thursday afternoon. Schink was last in line to be screened on her flight and said it took about 45 minutes for her turn. “It was fairly easy,” she said.

Maui’s main airport, which handled up to 11,000 flyers each day in its heyday, saw 1,262 passengers Thursday, Maui Airports District Manager Marvin Moniz said in the evening.

He said most of the trans-Pacific passengers utilized the state’s new pre-travel testing program, which allows flyers who produce a negative COVID-19 test to bypass a mandatory 14-day quarantine. The tests are supposed to be performed by “trusted partners” approved by the state.

However, 10 to 25 percent of passengers on each flight had tests from nontrusted partners. Moniz added that 5 percent of arrivals decided to forgo pre-travel testing and head straight to quarantine.

Many passengers had taken multiple tests, according to head screener Denise Texeira, airport business services supervisor.

“What people do is they go to CVS or Walgreens and their results are not coming back in time, so they go to somebody else,” she said.

Arriving passengers stand in line while waiting to be screened Thursday at Kahului Airport

They are taking three tests and getting their results in time from the nonapproved sites but not the trusted partners, she said.

The state requires that travelers take a FDA-approved COVID-19 nucleic acid amplification test done at Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments-certified labs. However, the labs must be among Hawaii’s 17 “trusted testing partners” listed on its www.hawaii covid19.com website. CVS and Walgreens are “trusted partners.”

There are eight post-arrival screening stations where people deplaning must show their Hawaii Safe Travels QR code and test results. They then receive documentation showing quarantine exemptions or mandates and can proceed to baggage claim.

Post-arrival screening, which requires anywhere from five to 15 minutes per party, went quickly for single trans-Pacific flights. During an early afternoon peak, three trans-Pacific flights landed within 10 minutes of one another and it took up to 90 minutes to be processed, Moniz said.

Eight of 10 passengers interviewed by The Maui News from the first trans-Pacific flight to deplane at Kahului Airport on Thursday morning — a United Airlines flight from Los Angeles — said the program is appropriate for the state to implement.

Wailea residents Marc Ostrofsky and Beverle Gardner talk with Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino after landing and having their COVID-19 tests questioned Thursday at Kahului Airport.

“I think it has to be done — it’s just the way that we are right now,” said Steve Borgquist, who was traveling from San Diego with his wife. “Although it’s not convenient for travelers, it’s necessary.”

“It makes you feel safer knowing everyone has a COVID test,” Deanne Borgquist added.

Deleys and Craig Brandman of Santa Barbara, Calif., said getting the negative COVID-19 test approved by airport screeners was a good feeling.

“I think it’s fabulous — it’s like getting out of jail,” Deleys Brandman said, laughing.

Craig Brandman said that Hawaii is “doing a great job” and that the pre-travel testing was “relatively easy.”

“I think (Hawaii is) probably the safest place to travel on the planet,” he said. “That’s why we picked it.”

Colin Lynch and Eva Peterson, Los Angeles residents staying on Maui for a couple months, said the state requiring COVID-19 testing is “definitely appropriate.”

“It was pretty easy,” Eva Peterson said. “But it was hard to figure out which labs to use.”

Not all passengers had positive experiences, though.

Marc Ostrofsky, who owns a home in Wailea, said the program is “screwed up.”

Before traveling with his wife from Los Angeles, he said he called a dozen trusted partners, only to find they were unreliable.

Ostrofsky said CVS and Quest Diagnostics did not return his results in three days. United Airlines only had testing in San Francisco and Hawaiian Airlines wasn’t set up in Los Angeles, he added.

“If you didn’t have to do a trusted partner, you wouldn’t have a problem, people would sail through,” he said. “I’ve never seen something so screwed up in my entire life.”

Hawaii’s thrice-delayed program allows trans-Pacific travelers, who produce a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of their departure from their final leg of travel, to bypass the state’s mandatory 14-day quarantine.

Originally slated to begin Aug. 1 as a way to restart tourism, the program was pushed back three times due to COVID-19 surges on Oahu and on the Mainland.

The program has been a focus of debate among community members, government leaders and tourism industry officials. Supporters point to the state’s staggering unemployment rate, business closures and economic woes. Opponents say it is too early to reopen the state and travel will spark further COVID-19 spread.

Maui and Kauai counties are encouraging visitors to take post-arrival tests; Hawaii County is requiring a second rapid test screening for arrivals to avoid quarantine. These post-arrival tests are free to travelers with the counties picking up the cost.

The Associated Press reported that about 8,000 people arrived in Hawaii on Thursday.

During a morning blessing that welcomed back airport workers, returning residents and Maui visitors, Moniz said he’s been sad to see Maui residents move away during the pandemic due to job losses and other financial hardships.

“I see it every day,” Moniz said. “We have to find a way to keep our people here.”

Moniz, who had been up early and planned to stay until the last of 10 trans-Pacific flights touched down Thursday, said the day was long but worth it.

“It’s nice to see people again,” Moniz said. “It’s nice to see local people coming home.”

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

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