Ige, Roth express concerns about uniform COVID-19 travel rules for state

  • Jay Delfin gives Louise Finches the first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine Friday at Hilo Medical Center in Hilo. (KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald)

Gov. David Ige and Mayor Mitch Roth both expressed misgivings about state House Speaker Scott Saiki’s plans to introduce legislation to establish statewide COVID-19 travel rules, which Saiki said would reduce confusion for residents and tourists.

Speaking Friday during a Facebook Live stream, Ige said a one-size-fits-all approach to each county for travel rules doesn’t allow counties the flexibility to take into account their own situations in regard to the coronavirus and its effect on tourism, and vice versa.

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“I do think that flexibility is important, and we do see very different conditions in each of the counties,” Ige said. “For example … Kauai has the fewest hospital beds and ICU units, so they definitely are concerned about any kind of increase in cases, because it can very easily overwhelm the hospitals there. You know, versus Oahu, which we do have thousands of hospital rooms here, and definitely can handle more cases.

“ … The current system, as it exists, does allow me to issue statewide orders that impacts everyone, but also allows the flexibility that we can take appropriate action in each of the counties to respond to what we see happening in the community.”

A bill calling for a uniform travel policy “would not allow for the kinds of exemptions that we are currently seeing, such as on Kauai,” Saiki told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser last week. “The statewide travel policy should be consistent and apply to all counties to avoid confusion and to help prop up our entire statewide economy.”

Kauai had opted out of the state’s Safe Travels program, but on Tuesday modified its rules to allow travelers who have been in the state for three days to participate in the Safe Travels program when traveling to the Garden Isle.

Kauai also has started a “resort bubble” program, allowing travelers who take a pre-travel test to quarantine for three days at approved properties and then take a post-travel test. Those with negative test results are released from quarantine.

The reasons Saiki listed for the need for a law to set statewide rules include avoiding confusion among incoming travelers, a lack of data showing travel is a predominant cause of the coronavirus infections in Hawaii, and the role travel plays in the state’s economy.

The numbers of new coronavirus cases statewide spiked at the end of last week. On Thursday, there were 322 new cases reported statewide, with 18 of those on the Big Island. On Friday, there were 264 new cases statewide, 10 in Hawaii County.

“We anticipated that there would be an increase with the holidays and the increased holidays. It was expected but obviously concerning,” Ige said. “You know, we are tracking that and monitoring hospitalizations. … We want to make sure we don’t want to get overrun, that we don’t have to ration care or do those kinds of things that really put our community at risk.”

Ige said the clear majority of new cases “definitely is residents.”

“The numbers of cases that are tied to visitors continue to be, relatively, a small percentage of the cases we are seeing,” he said.

Roth told the Tribune-Herald Friday he has “mixed feelings” about Saiki’s proposed legislation.

“It would be nice if we all had the same rules but, you know, every county is different. We have different needs and different concerns right now,” Roth said. “Kauai has very few hospital beds, so if their hospitalizations go up by just a few people, they’re heavily impacting their hospitals. We have a much larger island, but we still don’t have that many hospital beds. And (Wednesday, Thursday and Friday) we had two (COVID-19 patients) in our hospitals.

“As the numbers go up, as we see those numbers go out of control, we may need to take the same tack that Kauai has taken. We have a secondary (post-arrival) testing program that seems to be working pretty well. It’s not perfect, but we’re catching a lot of people at the airport, and we’re keeping our numbers down.”

Both Ige and Roth also expressed concern about variant strains of the coronavirus that were first detected in England and have now been found in various parts of the mainland U.S.

Saiki said he expects opposition from individual counties about making uniform, statewide travel rules.

Saiki also is likely to introduce legislation allowing inbound passengers to take a COVID-19 test at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu if they do not have a negative test before landing. Passengers testing negative would not be subject to quarantine, he said.

Passengers without negative test results currently are required to submit to a 10-day quarantine.

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The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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

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