Kauai is rejoining Hawaii’s Safe Travels. But the cost of its quarantine rules has been high.

Jessica Wong

Last Friday, Hawaii Gov. David Ige approved Kauai’s re-entry into Hawaii’s Safe Travels program, after opting out in early December because of a rise in travel-related COVID cases and limited resources. The move means that travel restrictions for the Garden Isle will ease. Previously, Kauai had one of the strictest […]

Last Friday, Hawaii Gov. David Ige approved Kauai’s re-entry into Hawaii’s Safe Travels program, after opting out in early December because of a rise in travel-related COVID cases and limited resources.

The move means that travel restrictions for the Garden Isle will ease. Previously, Kauai had one of the strictest restrictions in Hawaii but, starting on April 5, it will reopen to trans-Pacific travelers, who will be able to skip a 10-day quarantine with a negative test result prior to arrival.

Kauai has seen significant success in the fight against the pandemic because of its stricter quarantine rules. As of March 11, the island only had 186 confirmed cases, total, and only one person has died from COVID-19. The state of Hawaii has had 27,023 cases total and 448 deaths as of March 10.

“Case counts across the state and on the mainland are stabilizing,” Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami said in a press release. “Our local hospitals are working closely together and have surge plans in place for additional ICU capacity, if needed. They have also obtained more equipment and have COVID testing and treatment options available to respond to any increase in COVID-19 cases.”

The decision came months after a bill introduced by several state House representatives in early January, which called for standardization of the state’s travel program and would have forced Kauai to rejoin Safe Travels. The bill inspired heated discussions from supporters and dissenters alike, resulting in hundreds of letters arguing for and against creating a single travel policy for Hawaii.

“I own a vacation rental property on Kauai,” wrote Lisa Steele. “My business helps to support the economy on Kauai. My guests eat in local restaurants, buy gifts for friends and families from local businesses, participate in local activities and buy groceries in local grocery stores. Without the guests of the vacation rental industry, many, many businesses are closed. The homeless population has increased to new record highs. People are losing jobs.”


I. Sam-Vargas, who opposed the bill, wrote, “To have one statewide plan for COVID travel is shortsighted and not good governance. How can all counties be treated the same when they are not vaguely similar in size and medical resources? … Do the right thing and continue to let counties determine what is best for them. After all, all counties are united in their goal: Get back to business as soon as possible while keeping its citizens safe. Just our strategies differ and are tailored to our own needs.”

Kauai had attempted to balance the needs of its economy against those of its residents to survive in the pandemic. At the beginning of 2021, the island had put into effect “resort bubbles,” also known as its “enhanced movement quarantine” program. This required tourists to undertake a 72-hour mandatory quarantine at a short list of participating properties until they provided a negative test result that would then allow them to explore other areas of the island. The resort bubble provided some residents with much-needed income, but tourism, compared to a year earlier, is still down by 96%.

Because of the lack of visitors, many small businesses were forced to shut their doors. In the fourth quarter of 2020, Kauai lost 7,500 jobs. According to a survey conducted late last year with Kauai’s Chamber of Commerce, others feared they would also be forced to close if the next few months did not see a significant increase in tourism.

Former business owner Kenny Ishii thinks that opening is good for everyone. Ishii had to close his own small business, Ono Family Restaurant, a local tourist staple that he owned and operated for over 30 years.

In a video, Ishii, a longtime resident, explains that although Kauai has been through several devastating hurricanes and floods, it doesn’t compare to the chaos now within his beloved community.

“It’s hard to see the community here go under such stress. It really weighs on me at times,” he says. Ishii also said that he was receiving unemployment benefits for the first time in his life.

Receiving unemployment benefits has been a consistent issue during Hawaii’s pandemic lockdown. Many residents are still continuing to struggle after months of delays, and the state’s unemployment system has been overwhelmed.

In a recent press conference, Gov. Ige said that there was half a billion dollars in the state’s unemployment reserves at the beginning of the pandemic, but it was drained to nothing by June, when Hawaii began borrowing federal funds. And Hawaii’s unemployment call centers receive 200,000 calls a day from residents across the state, according to Anne Perreira-Eustaquio, the director of the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations.

Many calls have not gone through, or claims have not been processed correctly, forcing some to reach out to their state representatives for help, according to residents in one of Hawaii’s unemployment support groups on Facebook. One of those representatives is Kauai’s Dee Morikawa, who has been fielding calls and emails from her constituents, including many in the hospitality sector, during the pandemic. Morikawa would also become one of the representatives behind the bill to re-enter the Safe Travels program.

“This Kauai quarantine and the deviation from Safe Travels has crippled their livelihoods,” she said in February. One of her constituents included a single mother who could barely afford basic necessities, including the internet. Not only did the family face issues over remote schooling, the mother feared that she would eventually lack the resources to even file unemployment claims.

“I’m the voice for the residents and businesses who are afraid to speak publicly, because of possible backlash,” Morikawa later added.

Other business owners are thrilled with the reopening, but they also fear reprisals for speaking out over the last several months from other residents, who think they are prizing money over the safety of others. Some decided to form the website OpenKauai.com as an avenue to mobilize and to voice concerns. A rally held last month brought out 200 people who supported the reopening to avoid further economic hardship.

Dependent on tourism, Kauai lost 7,500 jobs in the fourth quarter of 2020.

Solidago/Getty Images/iStockphoto

One local business owner, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of community backlash, said the group had hoped to get a direct line out to Kauai Mayor Kawakami, though many regarded him with skepticism since October. They later added that they understood the reasons behind those who opposed rejoining the Safe Travels program, whether it was safety or the idyllic conditions without tourists.

But in that business owner’s view, those who opposed rejoining were financially stable enough to have those opinions.

“We knew people [were] going to be frustrated,” Kawakami told SFGATE when asked about pulling out of the Safe Travels Program. “People like to blame [the government], they are going to blame me. I said that’s the way it’s supposed to be. I’d rather have them turn their frustrations and blame towards me than to have the community start to turn against each other.”

He added that his response to prioritizing health and safety was due in large part to culture. He stated that the kupuna (elderly) population are considered living treasures, yet it is they who were most at risk from COVID-19. “We’re still a culture where if we run into a challenge, even if I run into one as mayor, I run out to the elders in different communities to ask them advice on how to handle situations.”

“When we took a look at who were the most vulnerable people in this pandemic,” he added, “it became clear that our Native Hawaiian population was most vulnerable, the minority populations were those that were the most vulnerable.”

Kawakami also explained that at the beginning of the pandemic, Kauai lacked the resources to deal with COVID-19. The county only had 11 ICU beds for its nearly 65,000 residents. After opting out of the Safe Travels program last year, he said that the government, medical and tourism industries had put in a lot of hard work over the months to build a proper foundation, so they can be on a road to recovery instead of another shutdown.

For additional safety measures, the County of Kauai and Kauai District Health Office have partnered to offer free COVID-19 testing on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Ten hotels have also committed to support giving post-travel testing to their guests.

Even with the reopening, some business owners expressed concern that growing anti-tourist sentiment will deter potential travelers from coming to the island. They hoped that the mayor would take the lead to abate that anti-tourist sentiment, which stems from the island’s issues with overtourism.

But according to Kawakami, it is easier to blame tourists for the failures of government infrastructure and lack of affordable housing to deal with the influx in both population and tourists, but it is not their fault.

Ishii also said it was worthless to chastise the tourists, especially now, since they are just trying to escape a terrible reality on the mainland to get a break.

He said that when it comes to dealing with tourists, “the pureness of freedom is you giving respect, and respect comes back to you.” For him, the concept of “aloha” exists everywhere, and those in Hawaii awaken it inside those who visit.



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