Data from the Hawaii Department of Health show that most confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the islands are local residents. But some legislators are calling for increased quarantine restrictions on visitors.
The numbers of tourists coming to Hawaii these days have dropped sharply, at least compared to usual.
This time last year, around 30,000 people per day arrived in the islands, according to state figures. Now daily arrivals have fallen to less than 1% of that, according to a 7-day moving average from the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.
At a recent press conference, Department of Transportation spokesperson Tim Sakahara confirmed that figure. “Passenger arrivals to Hawaii are now actually down more than 99% compared to last year,” Sakahara said.
As a comparison, on April 9th 663 people arrived in the state. 107 of those were confirmed as visitors. Other categories included returning residents, intended residents, air crew, and people transiting through.
In April 2019, 856,250 visitors arrived in the state.
Under normal conditions visitors arrive in Hawaii from all over the world every day. That led public health experts to flag tourism as a major risk factor for spreading COVID-19 throughout the islands. As a result, Gov. David Ige ordered both visitors and returning residents to undergo a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine upon arrival.
Now with tourism largely shutdown, health department numbers show that tourists account for a small fraction of Hawaii’s 600 confirmed cases of the virus. The governor confirmed that fact at a recent press conference.
“The overwhelming majority of COVID-19 cases are coming from residents who have traveled to the mainland or internationally to places that have had COVID-19,” Ige said.
But that has not stopped some officials from proposing stricter measures for visitors arriving during the pandemic.
Attorney General Claire Connors says her office is exploring the possibility of requiring visitors to wear an ankle monitor during their two-week quarantine. She discussed the idea with legislators at a recent state Senate hearing.
“There are a whole lot of things in the array of options available to us. Is it going to be ankle bracelets at certain hotels? Ankle bracelets at all hotels? We’re still trying to drill down on some of the issues that will increase enforcement,” Connors said.
A spokesperson for the Attorney General’s office said in an email that the ankle monitors were just one of several ideas under consideration for tracking travelers during the pandemic, but that nothing is definitive yet.
Senators present at the hearing suggested ideas ranging from banning car rentals for non-residents to quarantining tourists on military bases. Kaneohe Sen. Jarret Keohokalole went so far as to suggest that visitors be quarantined on barges.
But non-partisan health experts like Dr. Mark Mugiishi say that singling out visitors misses the larger issue. “The public health risk to the state of Hawaii is from travelers,” the general surgeon said.
In addition to being a medical doctor, Mugiishi is also the president and CEO of HMSA, Hawaii’s largest health insurer by member count. HMSA and Mugiishi are also leading the development of a plan to safely reopen Hawaii’s economy.
When asked about imposing stricter quarantine measures, Mugiishi said making an arbitrary distinction between various classifications of residents and non-residents is not useful from a public health perspective.
“Whatever structure we put in place to control the reintroduction of disease to our islands from travel has to be looking at travelers and not dividing them up into different categories,” Mugiishi noted.
He did add that there is good reason to separate out passengers arriving from epicenters of the COVID-19 pandemic areas where the spread of the virus has not been contained.
State officials have already implemented measures directed at all travelers arriving in the state.
All arrivals since late March have been required to undergo the 14-day, self-quarantine. Multiple visitors have been arrested for violating the quarantine before waiting the full 14 days.
As of last week, state officials began verifying contact phone numbers and addresses where each airline passenger landing in the islands will be for their quarantine. Visitors are required to provide the name of their hotel, while residents must provide the address of their local residence.
When it comes to expanding those measures, there is now another complication. Earlier this week, Attorney General William Barr directed U.S. Attorneys around the country to be on the lookout for state and local rules that violate civil rights.
In a written memo Barr said, “We do not want to unduly interfere with the important efforts of state and local officials to protect the public. But the Constitution is not suspended in times of crisis.”
“We must therefore be vigilant to ensure its protections are preserved,” he added.
In a written statement, U.S. Attorney for the District of Hawaii Kenji Price said: “State and local leaders in Hawaii and elsewhere are appropriately taking actions to protect the public from the spread of COVID-19. This is a tough task, and one that must be performed responsibly, mindful of the civil liberties enshrined in the U.S. Constitution that define who we are as a community and a country.”
Price also added: “It is my duty to protect the public and enforce the law, which means ensuring that, during times like these, restrictions imposed to protect the public are both reasonable and temporary.”