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Officials: Strict COVID measures in place for conference

Organizer says no attendees have tested positive for virus

A multiday conference of more than 100 people at Fairmont Kea Lani that spurred criticism in attendees’ home states took strict precautions to prevent COVID-19, the organizer emphasized Thursday.

“We knew we would receive criticism for moving forward with this event but we also thought that done properly in partnership with the Fairmont and with strict adherence to Hawaii travel restrictions we could be a positive example on how to begin to reopen the hotel and hospitality business in Hawaii,” Dan Howle, chairman of the nonprofit Independent Voter Project, told The Maui News.

The four-day conference that brought about 130 legislators, lobbyists and family from California and Texas was thrust into the national spotlight over criticism that the event was ill-timed. California recently urged residents against travel due to a spike in coronavirus cases.

Howle, though, said the conference toiled for months over COVID-19 safety measures, and industry leaders hope to use the event as an example of following safety protocol during a pandemic.

“They are working hard to do things well and be safe,” said Rod Antone, Maui Hotel & Lodging Association executive director.

Antone pointed to strict COVID-19 requirements for cast and crew filming in September at the Andaz Maui at Wailea Resort. He said events and filming at hotels have COVID-19 measures that go above and beyond rules for the general public.

“Group events are actually very well-controlled events and because of that they are very safe events,” Antone added.

Howle said that the nonprofit and the Fairmont collaborated for three months leading up to the conference to “ensure a safe and secure environment for hotel workers and conference attendees.”

Seating diagrams for all meetings had six feet of physical distancing. Attendees agreed that food and beverage service would require conference attendees to be seated with a mask on until they were actively eating or drinking. No room service was allowed. The hotel had sanitizing measures in place. Also, county waivers were obtained for meeting spaces that exceeded gathering limits.

Maui County spokesman Brian Perry confirmed this week that the county was informed of the event. He said conference attendees are following state and county COVID-19 requirements.

“The County of Maui expects that during this event, as with any other event at this time, that there will be compliance with current Public Health Emergency Rules,” Perry said.

Despite travel warnings in other states, Hawaii launched a trans-Pacific pre-travel program in October as cases in the state declined following a spike over the summer. Howle touted the safety and efficacy of the plan, which requires that travelers produce a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of departure or self-quarantine for 14 days.

He said on Thursday that all of the attendees had produced negative tests.

Perry on Tuesday said the county encouraged attendees to take the voluntary second test within 72 hours of arrival. Howle said that due to questions over efficacy of a second test, he asked attendees instead to test within five days of returning to their home states. If anyone produces a positive result, contact tracing will be done, he added.

Earlier this week, the state tightened COVID-19 measures for hotels.

Gov. David Ige signed the 15th emergency proclamation Monday that makes the hotel operator responsible for accommodating guests on property or in an alternative location if they become positive for COVID-19 or are identified as close contacts of a person who is positive for virus.

The mandate also calls for hotels to create, submit to Hawaii Tourism Authority and publish plans that identify COVID-19 response measures, along with what “guests, customers, invitees, employees, contractors, vendors and other persons who enter the property’s premises may expect in terms of service, accommodations and required safety protocols.”

Safety protocols, including mask mandates, physical distancing rules and sanitization measures are listed for the Fairmont on its website.

Howle said that with the efforts the state and county are making to ensure the safety of visitors and the community, he believes the conference will be held again in 2021. He added that he does not regret this year’s trip.

“I’ve been asked a lot recently, ‘Why have you decided to go through with this conference?’ “ Howle said. “People who work at this hotel who I’ve developed personal relationships with — a lot of people here, we know their families, we know their kids, for me, not trying my best to get here and do this conference, even in a reduced form, I’m letting down a lot of people who look forward to this event every year.”

“It’s like an extended family when my wife and I get here.”

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

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