Officials suggest COVID-19 testing of air passengers prior to their arrival as condition to restarting tourism

  • CASE

  • GREEN

Hawaii’s lieutenant governor and a member of its congressional delegation on Wednesday floated the idea of COVID-19 testing for any arriving air passenger prior to travel as a condition to reopen the tourism industry.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green, a Democrat and emergency room physician from Kailua-Kona, used Gov. David Ige’s afternoon press conference to unveil an idea he called “travel with aloha.”

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Noting that at some point, Ige “will feel we’re ready for a return of tourism,” Green said, “we want to do it in meaningful ways.”

U.S. Rep. Ed Case, a Hawaii Democrat, went a step further, sending a letter Wednesday to Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Steve Dickson, seeking the agency’s “cooperation in confirming Hawaii’s ability to impose and enforce conditions on air travel to Hawaii which are critical to ensuring (a) the health of Hawaii’s residents and visitors and (b) the safe recovery of Hawaii’s economy and in particular our travel and tourism industry.”

“This could include requiring testing of all intended passengers (including crew) on any direct air travel to Hawaii before boarding,” Case wrote. “Such testing could include at least fever testing and, as available, on-site rapid COVID-19 testing, as now required by international airlines such as Emirates on some flights.”

Case said enforcement of the mandatory testing would be the responsibility of the airlines.

“The requirement for enforcing these conditions would be borne by the airlines as a condition of accepting any intended passenger on any direct flight to Hawaii, and any airline would be required to deny boarding to any intended passenger with a fever which, under Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, indicates potential COVID-19 infection or who tests positive.”

Case pointed out in his letter that despite Ige’s mandatory 14-day quarantine, the number of visitors to Hawaii has been “increasing rapidly” this month, which suggests the quarantine is not an effective deterrent.

“These air passengers arrive from various destinations with widely varying efforts to mitigate the public health effects of COVID-19. Some jurisdictions are just as stringent as Hawaii, if not more so, while most others are not,” Case wrote. “Their continued arrival in Hawaii, at increasing numbers, with an ineffective post-arrival quarantine, constitutes an unacceptable risk, and it is reasonable for Hawaii to seek to institute pre-boarding conditions to minimize this risk wherever and however possible.”

Noting that Iceland, United Arab Emirates and Guam all ask for pre-boarding tests of arriving passengers, Green said his idea is for people to “get tested before they travel, and then come to us in the spirit of aloha, knowing that they’re negative.”

“Hopefully, the tests will get easier and easier to do,” Green said. “… In Japan, they’re talking about a test that only takes one minute … before they get on a plane.”

“When we open up to tourism, we want it to be very safe, and we want to welcome travelers, because we’re going to go from … very low rates of COVID to obviously, something higher,” Green added. “And we need to make sure it’s safe for our community.”

Three new COVID-19 cases were reported in Hawaii as of noon Wednesday. According to state Health Director Bruce Anderson, all three are within a cluster involving a family with multiple generations living under the same roof in an Oahu housing complex.

The total number of cases statewide is now 638, with 17 deaths — all on Oahu or Maui — and 563 individuals released from isolation after recovering.

In Hawaii County, there have been 75 cases, all released from isolation. Only one Big Island case has required hospitalization.

Despite the state having one of the lowest rates of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S., Case said his request to the FAA to have airlines institute testing for Hawaii-bound passengers is needed “on an emergency basis considering the continued public health threat to Hawaii from our inability to impose and enforce effective mitigation requirements.”

The congressman asked for a response to his letter no later than May 20.

“Simply put, if passengers do not feel safe coming to Hawaii because they fear contracting COVID-19 on the flight or in Hawaii, or if Hawaii residents do not feel safe with passengers getting off planes in Hawaii, air travel to Hawaii will not recover, leading to many consequences to include FAA and airport-supportive revenues,” Case wrote.

Saying he defers to Ige on when the state reopens tourism, Green added, “Under any circumstance, we want to put as many mitigating protections into our arsenal as we can.”

“Some people, in spite of our … 14-day quarantine rule, they still come here,” he said. “… If someone had a negative test, they would come into the state much safer. We can’t force people legally to get a test, but we can do what the governor has done already — which is to tell people if we feel you need to be quarantined, you will be quarantined for two weeks.”

Green said when COVID-19 rates drop in the U.S. and elsewhere, “people are going to want to come to Hawaii.”

“It’s obvious to me that there has been so much stress and so much desire to get out after being locked up at home for several months, that they’re going to want to start coming back in numbers that are probably a lot bigger than we even anticipate,” he said.

The lieutenant governor also warned of a possible “negative interaction” between local residents and visitors if there are “small spikes of COVID-19.”

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“And I don’t want that to happen, at all,” he said. “… So again, having a test would show a demonstrated aloha for travelers here.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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