Big Island Coronavirus Updates

Mayor Kim Pitching Two-Test System to Reopen Big Island to Tourism

October 6, 2020, 2:40 PM HST
* Updated October 6, 2:44 PM
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One test simply won’t do.

That’s Big Island Mayor Harry Kim’s position on a state-sponsored pre-travel testing program meant to reopen the islands to tourism Oct. 15, and he’s sticking to it, no matter how much it hurts Hawai‘i County’ immediate economic prospects. But Kim hasn’t abandoned hope in a different system based on two coronavirus tests, one 72 hours prior to travel and one upon arrival in Hawai‘i.

“Hawaii island will opt out under (currently proposed) circumstances because they require only one test,” the mayor said. “One test is not an acceptable risk element for Hawai‘i’s people. If we can somehow address a two-test system, we’ll try to come up with something.”

Kaua‘i County requested permission from Gov. David Ige to implement a two-test system after stockpiling some 15,000 tests to use for that purpose. The state denied the request Monday.

“The governor said the reason he said no to a two-test system is there are only a limited amount of testing kits available to Hawai‘i, between 7,000 and 8,000 per day,” Kim explained. “He felt if you made a two-test system requirement with Hawai‘i (responsible for providing all those test kits), it would completely drain tests for residents in no time.”

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Mayor Kim, who initially proposed a three-test system, said testing supply is the least of the state’s or county’s concern. Kim added he’s been in contact with an entity willing to supply Hawai‘i with the necessary testing supply for a two-tiered system. As talks remain ongoing and resumed at 2 p.m. Tuesday, the mayor declined to provide the name of that entity, saying only that he’s been assured the materials will be available.

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Money won’t be a problem either, at least not until the new year, as CARES Act funding is plentiful enough to pick up the testing tab.

The primary concern is actually logistics. The Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport has a difficult time providing seating accommodations for its outgoing passengers. It’s far from equipped to hold thousands of incoming travelers, potentially for several hours, as they wait to have their arrival tests administered.

Another issue is who will administer the tests. Medical personnel is already limited on the Big Island and the state as a whole, and competent administration is key to the creation of a valid system.

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Finally, if the tests aren’t of the rapid-turnaround variety, communicating the results to passenger arrivals and tracking those people in the interim also poses significant challenges.

Upon the news that Hawai‘i County would opt out of the pre-travel testing program as currently constructed, the Big Island business community roiled in frustration and dismay.

“This morning’s news of Harry Kim choosing to opt-out of the state’s pre-travel testing program is a devastating blow to everyone in the travel and hospitality industry,” Holly Crane, of Anelakai Adventure, wrote in an email. “We have patiently and painfully awaited the moment that we could safely welcome visitors back to our state and have been so incredibly excited to have a well thought out plan in place beginning Oct. 15. Companies like ours are already hanging on by a thread, and the rejection of this plan could be the end for some of us.”

Others said it felt as though the rug had been pulled out from under them.

“Perhaps the most difficult pill to swallow here is how close we were to recovering. We were seeing reservations come in steadily for the first time in months. There was genuine excitement and enthusiasm on the part of both visitors and residents,” Manu Powers, of Sea Quest Hawai‘i, wrote in an email. “Already this morning, I have refunded hundreds of dollars in reservations that have been canceled since the mayor’s decision was made public. Companies like ours and so many more will continue to lose money until this decision is reversed. As local people, we understand the benefits of a diversified economy and support a long-term solution to that end. In the meantime, families will suffer, the traditions and culture will suffer.”

Kim answered those criticisms Tuesday, calling them “very, very understandable.” However, based on county research, the one-test policy may catch fewer than half of potential coronavirus-positive travelers.

Considering the events of recent weeks, namely a cluster at the Yukio Okutsu Veterans Home that resulted in the loss of more than two dozen lives, Kim said he’s not willing to take the risk. Under the Kim administration, the health of the citizenry will take priority over the health of the citizenry’s economy.

“I will never get over the hurt from what happened at the Veterans home. It will be with me forever,” Kim said. “I know the frustration, the anger (businesses are feeling). Above all that, I have to weigh the acceptable risk, and the most important thing is the health and welfare of the people here. When you look at the one-test system, the failure of (detection) is too great. It’s not an acceptable risk.”

A green light for Kim’s two-tiered testing plan, should it receive one, would come later this week.

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