LIHUE, Hawaii (KHON2) — It’s been nearly two weeks since Kauai temporarily opted out of the state’s pre-travel testing program and started requiring all incoming travelers to quarantine upon arrival.
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Governor David Ige approved Mayor Derek Kawakami’s request after the Garden Isle saw an uptick in travel-related COVID-19 cases since reopening tourism.
“We just doubled our cases within the course of a month or so,” explained Kauai Community Health Center Director Dr. Kapono Chong-Hanssen.
“To me, the data that you saw on Kauai, from our baseline was concerning and I support the mayor’s decision for sure,” Chong-Hanssen added.
Kauai continues to report new cases almost every day.
Dr. Chong-Hanssen says the island reported 22 COVID-19 cases in the 10 days leading up to the opt-out. Kauai has reported 24 cases since then.
“I think what you see now is that our community was seeded with disease through travel, through that period of time, and now we’re watching the community spread,” he shared.
Dr. Chong-Hanssen says without the travel cases coming in, local health officials are able to contact trace and start working on a vaccine plan.
“It looks like we’ve been able to extinguish (the community spread) in most places, or at least not let it catch like wildfire blazing again, but we’re certainly not out of the woods yet,” he said.
Instead of opting out of the state’s pre-travel program, Mayor Kawakami had originally pushed for a mandatory second test which would require a quarantine period.
One business owner said he thought that was a good plan to keep the island safe.
“I felt like that was the right pawn to be played and I don’t know why our governor wouldn’t approve something like that, but approve the extreme of a 14-day shut down. I just don’t get it,” said Cody Kimura, who operates Blue Ocean Adventure tours on Kauai.
According to Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) data, Kauai went from averaging 800 to 1,000 daily arrivals in November to about 100 in December.
Kimura said business was booming in November and it was his busiest November in four years.
Kimura said he was ready to launch a fourth boat for his operation when the opt-out was announced.
“I was like, no way!” he said. “And it was almost instantly, I mean, within the first five minutes, our phone was just blowing up with cancellations.”
Blue Ocean Adventures was averaging about 50 to 80 people per day on three boats.
“I think we ran one boat all this week and it was today and it was only like six people. So, we went from really busy to nothing,” he explained.
Kimura says he’s been trying to keep his employees busy with work, but it’s been difficult to do.
“Let’s face it, especially with the holidays coming up, unemployment isn’t anything that is going to really help someone survive,” Kimura said.
For now, he says the tight-knit Kauai community will help local businesses stay afloat.
“We’re going to give as much as we can, and it’s going to get to a point where we can’t and you know, I just hope that point never comes,” he said.
“We’re hoping it can open again soon,” Kimura added.
Dr. Chong-Hanssen who is in contact with Mayor Kawakami and Kauai District Health Officer Dr. Janet Berreman says there is no “real number” to reopen, but when the day comes he hopes it’s done safely.
“The local economy also depends on safety, so if you hit the tier system, you’re going to also hurt the local economy,” Dr. Chong-Hanssen said.
“When you reopen travel, do it more conservatively, so those things don’t appear to be as under imminent threat,” he explained.
“I think that it’s reasonable for our mayor’s and for our communities to demand a safer approach,” Chong-Hanssen added. “At least for us at the start of whatever it’s going to be after this opt-out happens.”