Few hiccups at Hilo airport as trans-Pacific travelers return

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald Alecia Haselton talks to Bill Hanson with Hawaii County Civil Defense after running into an issue with renting a car after arriving Thursday at Hilo International Airport. After receiving a negative result from a post-travel COVID-19 test, Haselton needed to provide physical proof to the rental car company.

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald Travelers check in with airport employees before getting tested for COVID-19 after arriving Thursday at Hilo International Airport.

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald Airport employee Stephen Thomas, right, helps a traveler access the Safe Travels information on his phone after arriving Thursday at Hilo International Airport. Safe Travels allows airport employees to see a passenger’s result from a pre-travel COVID-19 test.

The first day of post-flight testing at Hilo International Airport went by largely without incident as a trickle of trans-Pacific travelers returned to the Big Island on Thursday.

Thursday marked the beginning of the state’s new travel policy, allowing trans-Pacific passengers who received a negative COVID-19 test before arriving in Hawaii to skip the 14-day quarantine requirement. Because of additional requirements implemented by Mayor Harry Kim, travelers arriving at a Big Island airport also require a negative COVID-19 test taken immediately after arrival in order to skip quarantine.

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Hawaii County Civil Defense administrative officer Ben Hanson said Thursday afternoon that about 72 passengers from two flights had passed through the Hilo airport since the beginning of the day, moving through the newly instated antigen testing process without major hiccups.

“We’ve had 42 passengers requesting a post-flight test, and nobody who’s taken the pre-test is opting out of the post-test,” Hanson said. “Now, we weren’t sure whether anyone was likely to opt out, but we think it’s a good sign that nobody’s rejecting it.”

Among the staff working at the Hilo airport testing site are workers with Premier Medical Group, Civil Defense, the state Department of Health, the Hawaii Police Department and the Hawaii National Guard. Hanson said workers from each group are largely focused on managing specific aspects of the process — for example, the National Guard workers focus on assisting travelers who might not be electronic-savvy enough to easily handle the online Safe Travels Hawaii application and testing registration forms.

“The National Guard people are mostly young men and women, so they know how to deal with that and they’re all very approachable,” Hanson said, explaining that because the National Guard is handling the slower travelers the process moves more quickly for the rest of those arriving.

While Hanson said he could not divulge how many travelers have tested positive for COVID-19 — if any — he assured that Civil Defense and the other agencies have procedures in place for different scenarios, such as a positive pre-test and a negative post-test, or vice-versa, or any other combination. In any case, a positive post-test requires travelers to take a second post-test and quarantine until they get results.

A few minor points of confusion arose Thursday.

While travelers who test negative on both tests are free to go, rental car companies at the airport are insisting customers provide documentation proving that they are COVID-free before making a transaction. Hanson said Civil Defense will distribute forms confirming travelers’ COVID status if the traveler needs to rent a car.

One traveler, Big Island resident Alecia Haselton, said the process took about 40 minutes from landing to leaving the airport, although that did not include a brief delay in obtaining the Civil Defense rental car documentation.

“It was a lot worse in Honolulu, the line for people to scan their (Safe Travels Hawaii) QR codes was so long, people were missing their connecting flights,” Haselton said.

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Haselton, who was returning to the Big Island from California, added that she was glad to finally make it to the island after months of flight delays.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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