Business

Conversations on Geofence, Resort Bubbles Move Forward

August 4, 2020, 1:51 PM HST
* Updated August 4, 2:01 PM
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Mauna Kea Resort. PC: Winston Welborn

Conversations between Hawai‘i County and Big Island resort concerns are moving forward on the concept of a resort bubble that could allow tourists to return safely to the island, but questions around the proposal continue to outnumber answers.

In a nutshell, the idea is that tourists could self-quarantine at resorts inside of bubbles that would isolate them from residents and long-term visitors by way of a geofence, which would employ technological tracking devices to ensure tourists remained within established boundaries.

The concept, proposed by software developer Daniel Moriarty and first reported on by West Hawai‘i Today just two weeks ago, is novel and poses several problems that require solutions before any program could be rolled out.

Stephanie Donoho, administrative director of the Kohala Coast Resort Association, said her board has now had time to review the proposal and engaged in its first substantive discussions with the Hawai‘i County administration Friday.

“We decided all of us have more questions than we have answers,” Donoho said. “It’s a big puzzle.”

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The first pieces of the puzzle involve meeting the needs of all the competing user groups. Resorts on the Kohala Coast aren’t just home to sprawling hotel estates, they’re also full of properties belonging to full-time and part-time homeowners. Then there is the collection of small stores, shopping centers, and golf courses that generate significant revenue from kama‘aina customers. And finally, there are thousands of resort employees who come from all over the island to consider.

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Figuring out the safety and business logistics of what dining, recreation, and living areas would be part of the geofence and what areas would be designated for those not under quarantine is only the first part of the puzzle the county and the association need to solve.

Another substantial question to consider is how the proposal might be affected by the state’s plan to launch a pre-arrival testing program for tourists on Sept. 1.

The program, which already appears as though it may be pushed back a second time due to surging cases of COVID-19 in Hawai‘i (more than 500 in the last week), would allow visitors to earn a quarantine exemption by providing proof of a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of travel to Hawai‘i.

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“It is something still being discussed … whether or not it’s related to the threshold decision to have visitors take pre-travel tests or whether it applies to the current conditions where people have to quarantine,” said Roy Takemoto, executive assistant to Big Island Mayor Harry Kim.

“It would be something that we would do under the policy set by the state. If the state allows visitors to come with pre-travel tests, then we would have to adapt this concept to accommodate that option,” Takemoto continued. “But if the state doesn’t change anything and still requires quarantine, that’s where we would need to go back and forth with the state to see if modifications outside the hotel rooms come under the approval.”

Another question Donoho posed was who would officially be the client of the geofence developer and be responsible for the management of the program, as well as the payment for its implementation. In some ways, the state, any participating county, and the hui of hotels and resorts are all potential beneficiaries of the concept, as well as potentially liable if it fails.

And finally, there’s the question of privacy. Participating tourists would have to be tracked in some way so their whereabouts could be constantly referenced. Punishments for breaking the bubble by wandering outside of the geofence is another decision to make and comes with its own possible pitfalls.

“We’re very grateful it was brought up,” Donoho said. “We’re all navigating this pandemic together and trying to figure out the best way to move forward with the visitor industry. We appreciate the county having the conversation with us.”

That conversation will continue every couple of weeks until a plan is formulated or the idea is scrapped, Takemoto said.

One positive force behind the geofence proposal is fairly widespread support. All neighbor islands have expressed curiosity in the concept, and Donoho said Kaua‘i Mayor Derek Kawakami has shown particular interest in trying to involve his island and its resorts in any sound program that’s developed.

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