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Panels suggest easing pre-travel restrictions

Current rules require results before arrival to bypass quarantine

MICHAEL VICTORINO – Needs to discuss with team

A special committee on COVID-19 is proposing a change to the pre-travel testing program that would allow some leeway for trans-Pacific travelers who may have taken a COVID-19 test prior to departure but haven’t received their results.

Under an emergency proclamation signed by Gov. David Ige last week, travelers must quarantine for 14 days if they do not have their results in hand before they depart on their final leg to the islands.

But with some visitors and returning residents struggling to get tested in time as cases soar on the Mainland, a committee of lawmakers and health and business officials are suggesting a solution for travelers who do not have results but did everything “right.”

Two subcommittees under the House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness are proposing that travelers who followed the 72-hour pre-travel testing rules be exempt from quarantine if they take a rapid test upon arriving in Hawaii and are negative for the virus, as well as produce a negative result from their original trusted testing partner that can be uploaded into the State of Hawaii’s Safe Travels portal. The subcommittee proposes the rapid test at the airport be paid for by the traveler, a House spokeswoman said after the meeting.

“This solution, in partnership with the stakeholders who will support it, is a good plan for this current time,” according to the proposal by the Public Health Subcommittee, which is led by HMSA President and CEO Dr. Mark Mugiishi, and the Strategy & Communications Subcommittee, led by Hawaii Pacific Health President and CEO Ray Vara.

Advocates of the proposal said the recent requirement to have results in hand before traveling has led to accommodation cancellations, confusion and other issues.

A virtual hearing with the committees was held Monday morning along with the state’s four county mayors. The proposal was given to Ige and the mayors prior to the hearing.

Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino said during his Monday afternoon news conference that since the proposal had just been presented Monday, he did not have time to speak to his medical team about it.

“Until I talk with our medical people, I have no real comment at this point,” he said. “I’m supportive of any changes that will protect the people of Maui County and the people of Hawaii.”

During the hearing with the House committees, Victorino explained that since Nov. 1, there have been 192 positive cases in the county. Thirty-eight of those cases were visitors and 33 cases were Maui residents who traveled to the Mainland, for a total of 71 travel-related cases. There were 113 positive cases that were acquired in the community and eight cases that were undetermined.

“Our visitors have contributed (to Maui’s case numbers), but I can say a lot of them have been very good about complying,” Victorino said. “A lot of our voluntary program has been very effective. People are coming in wanting to know they are not sick, that is, visitors and residents alike.”

Maui County has been encouraging travelers to get a second test three days after their arrival to ensure they do not have the virus.

Victorino said since the governor’s mandate came down requiring test results prior to travel, he has seen the impacts.

“Yes, it hurt the economy, yes it hurt the industry overall. But again, I think people want to come in safe, they want to stay safe and they want to stay healthy,” Victorino told lawmakers.

He said he spoke to general managers of hotels and the visitor industry on Maui and that most of them can assist in efforts to do a second test, as well as making space available in their facilities for testing.

According to the two-page proposal by the subcommittees, the recent change has caused “confusion and uncertainty” among travelers, resulting in room cancellations and “millions of dollars in lost revenue,” as well as staff downsizing just within the past week.

The change has also caused some major trusted partners to withdraw their support, since they are unable to guarantee results prior to departure, impeding testing access.

It has also caused airlines, hotels, retail, restaurants and small businesses to revisit their staffing models just as CARES Act and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) is close to expiring. PUA temporarily expands unemployment insurance eligibility to self-employed workers, freelancers, independent contractors and part-time workers impacted by the pandemic.

The report described the pre-arrival testing program as an “unqualified success,” as it has protected residents’ health and has helped the economy. It added that the ongoing uncontrolled surge of COVID-19 on the Mainland “requires us to innovate to adapt the program to continue to keep us safe, while continuing to support our local economy.”

“So far, the program is working, and with a few enhancements, the committee believes it can be improved and some of the confusion about the program can be eliminated,” House Speaker Scott K. Saiki, co-chairman of the House Select Committee, said in a statement Monday. “We want to maintain communication with the governor, the mayors and other stakeholders to share information and perspectives and make sure the health and safety of the people of Hawaii is protected.”

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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