Hawaii’s covid-19 journey restrictions confuse vacationers, locals alike

John Derrick has been running an online travel guide to Hawaii travel for nearly 20 years. Therefore, he is used to answering questions about the travel destination. But these days the questions he gets at GuideofUS Hawaii are a little more complicated.

At what age do children have to be tested? Does my Covid-19 vaccination count for anything? Is my large family breaking the safe gathering rules? If I’ve already had coronavirus, can I get started?

“It really feels like you need a PhD in Hawaii Safe Travels to analyze all of the information,” Derrick said.

Hawaii essentially closed its borders to travel in March by requiring a 14-day quarantine for anyone who flew in. Officials told people not to come, and violators were arrested.

After seven strict months and several delays, the state opened its doors in mid-October with a program that allows visitors to bypass today’s 10-day quarantine and get a negative coronavirus test within 72 hours of departure. These tests must be conducted by a government approved partner in order to count for the Safe Travels program.

Now the tourism-dependent destination is trying to balance the security of its communities, some of which have limited resources for sick residents, with the economic boom that more visitors would bring. It is not an easy task.

Derrick said he goes through the county’s websites and the state’s tourism website every day to find out what travelers need to know.

“Most of the visitors I know are not going to visit 12 different websites to find out what the guidelines are,” he said.

Potential travelers must meet a number of requirements depending on where they are going and how they are going to get there. New rules emerge and there are more potential changes to come as some elected officials find their way.

Earlier this month, Maui urged visitors to either download an exposure notification app or enable their exposure notification setting on their mobile phones. Anyone who refuses must be quarantined.

Do you want to travel between islands? In most cases, another test is needed to avoid quarantine – but not if you’re driving to Oahu. Travelers traveling there from another Hawaiian island do not need a test and do not need to be quarantined.

Kauai pulled out of the Safe Travels program late last year but created its own plan that went into effect this month. This allows people to test before they travel from outside the state, stay in an approved “resort bubble” for three days and then test again to escape quarantine. These pre-arrival tests do not need to be conducted with government-approved partners.

The Ko’a Kea Hotel & Resort participates in Kauai’s “Resort Bubble”. Travelers who tested negative for the coronavirus prior to leaving for Hawaii can stay until they receive another negative test three days after arriving. (Courtesy Ko’a Kea Hotel & Resort)

To make matters even more complicated, travelers coming to Kauai from Oahu, Maui County, or the island of Hawaii and staying in the state for more than 72 hours can skip the quarantine if they take a pre-travel test from an approved state partner. This test must be completed within 72 hours of leaving for Kauai.

“It’s always changing, it’s always evolving,” said Sharolyn Kawakami, resort manager at Ko’a Kea Hotel & Resort in Kauai, where the rules are the strictest. “It is very difficult for the consumer to keep track of all of this.”

Vikram Seshadri, a travel consultant from Global Travel Collection, created a cheat sheet for clients. He tells them the websites they need to visit, the forms they need to fill out, the state-approved tests, and what to expect when they arrive. (For example: be prepared to constantly provide evidence of your negative test.)

“You don’t play around,” he said. “It’s a lot for customers to know. It gets a bit of a hassle and trying to walk them through this process can be a little daunting. “

Seshadri, who lives in Northern California, said he hadn’t booked anyone on Hawaii trips when the mandatory 14-day quarantine was in place. But he started Thanksgiving for a couple of weeks himself and now has a handful of customers on vacation and more to come in the coming weeks.


Manele Bay from a room in the Four Seasons Lanai on Lanai last year. (Courtesy Vikram Seshadri)

For travelers who are only on the road for four or five days, he doesn’t recommend Kauai due to its testing requirements.

“They’re stuck on the property for three days,” he said. “It’s kind of a defeat to purpose to go to this incredibly pristine island where nature is at the center.”

Kawakami, the resort manager of Ko’a Kea, said guests participating in the resort bubble program still relax by the pool, have a social distancing cocktail party at the pool bar, do laps on the property, and hang out with Mai Tais Watch the sunset. The beach is closed, however, and guests in the bubble are kept separate from locals or visitors who have already completed their tests.

She said the priority is making sure guests, staff and the community are safe even as the resort copes with a significant drop in tourism.

“We have to be able to serve and protect everyone,” said Kawakami. “We are honored to give our guests the space to relax and enjoy as much sunshine and our resort as possible.”

At least one Hawaii lawmaker is pushing for an end to local disparities in travel restrictions. House Speaker Scott Saiki, a Democrat, tabled a bill this week to make the rules uniform across the country.

“Travel policies have become confusing not only for Hawaiian residents but also for people planning to visit Hawaii,” he said. Saiki said he believed the state would see more visitors if the guidelines were “clearer and more consistent”.

Also potentially on the horizon: an exception for vaccinated travelers. Lt. Governor Josh Green, a state doctor and liaison officer, has suggested that people who receive both doses of the vaccine and wait an additional 14 days should be allowed to visit without testing or quarantine. The plan has yet to be approved by the governor, and it hangs on a big question still under investigation: whether vaccinated people can spread the virus.

If research shows the vaccine is stopping transmission, Green said he would envision developing the new plan for travel between islands first, and then for people from outside of Hawaii.

“If all goes well, we can do this sometime in mid to late March so people can travel to paradise more freely,” he said. Green said he also hoped for a more uniform set of rules for travel.

“My advice is to get vaccinated and expect the Hawaiian rules to simplify and improve as spring begins,” he said. “Prepare for a pre-test if you are not vaccinated.”

Meanwhile, some travelers find the restrictions prohibitive.

Seshadri said a couple he worked with postponed a trip from March 2020 to September to December before finally canceling it. He said they plan to revisit the trip once the restrictions are lifted and they are vaccinated.

“Vacation should give you peace of mind,” he said. “If you’re stressed by the time you get there, it’s not worth it.”

Continue reading:

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