A proposed state bill that would relax the Safe Travels program and make it uniform across all four Hawaii counties has some Maui leaders raising a flag over home rule.
“Any time you take home rule away from our county or any of the counties — and all four mayors are in agreement on this — it’s a dangerous precedent to set,” Mayor Michael Victorino said during a news conference Friday evening.
House Bill 1286 would allow the governor to establish statewide conditions for Safe Travel program exemptions and let travelers bypass quarantine with a negative result from a state-approved rapid COVID-19 test on arrival.
The measure is in its last state House committee and appears poised to move to the Senate.
Supporters at the state Legislature say the state’s current travel protocols, which vary from county to county, is a “patchwork of requirements” that’s difficult to navigate for residents and visitors. They also argue that each county’s approach has far-reaching financial impacts and that reopening is hampered by inconsistent policies.
Central Maui Rep. Troy Hashimoto, who supports the bill, said mayors should have authority in their counties but that the measure applies solely to travel.
“In order for us to really reopen in a methodical way, we’re going to have to all get onto the same page,” he said Friday. “I think that is a goal of the Legislature.”
Hashimoto added that health and economic well-being go hand in hand, and lawmakers must look at ways down the road to best reopen the state.
“You can be as healthy as you want, but if we have no jobs and no income, then it’s going to be terrible for a lot of people,” he said. “And that’s what I hear every day, a lot of my constituents are working at the hotel and they’re hurting.”
Hashimoto said that the bill has a long way to go, and by the time the rule would take effect, the worst of the pandemic should have passed, especially with vaccination rates increasing daily.
Other Maui leaders, though, are saying the measure would violate home rule and each unique county knows best how to lead. They also argue that big business is putting tourism ahead of public health and safety, and that Oahu-centric leaders are out of touch with Neighbor Island needs.
“Disaster response 101 gives autonomy and decision-making power to the very on-the-ground leaders who have eyes and ears on the situation, who can pivot or react to various changes,” South Maui Rep. Tina Wildberger, the sole representative to repeatedly vote against the measure, said Friday. “This is a lesson learned in 2005 by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Katrina, New Orleans.”
She said the rule comes from airlines and big hotel chains putting pressure on Oahu leadership to make policies that put financial gain ahead of public health and safety.
Wildberger said her district — which includes several major hotels that had thousands of employees prior to the pandemic — is the most impacted in the nation when it comes to unemployment and “we all want our economy back.”
“But making uniform travel rules with no authority for the counties and their on-the-ground decision-makers does not make people get on airplanes and fly when it’s not safe to fly,” she said. “When the CDC is telling everybody to stay home, exactly 20 percent of the population will get on a plane and not care.”
Other state leaders who represent Maui districts said they’re on the fence. Reps. Lynn DeCoite and Angus McKelvey have voted yes with reservations on iterations of the bill.
“While the state wants to go uniform, still, home rule should exist, which is why Kauai has been doing such a great job,” said DeCoite, whose district includes East Maui, Lanai and Molokai. “Business gotta survive also.”
McKelvey said that while he supports the need for consistency in some areas, he would not approve the bill in its current language because it displays “over-preemption of county law,” among other concerns.
“The bill with the present language now impedes on home rule by making it that any ordinance or rule from the county in conflict with the program is null and void,” he said.
He added that there is talk of the state paying for COVID-19 tests for travelers, which he is against.
McKelvey said Maui testimony has helped changed the bill and that people should take advantage of the public process.
“It’s like ‘Schoolhouse Rock’ — it’s an idea and a conversation about what should a statewide program look like? In the name of uniformity, how far is too far? Then there’s the vaccine. How do you address people getting tested even though they have the vaccine?”
Seen as a way to reopen tourism, the Safe Travels program launched Oct. 15 to allow travelers a way to bypass mandatory self-quarantine with a negative COVID-19 test produced within 72 hours of departure.
However, Neighbor Island mayors are allowed to opt out, which some temporarily did.
Now, customized travel rules exist in each county, with Kauai being the most strict for out-of-state travelers. Travelers from out of state have the option of a shortened three-day quarantine by participating in the resort bubble post-travel testing program on Kauai.
Maui participates in the state program for out-of-state residents and encourages a voluntary second test within 72 hours of arrival. Big Island also participates in the state program but randomly selects out-of-state passengers for a county-administered test upon arrival, with costs covered by the county. Oahu participates in the state program with no customizations.
On Friday, Victorino said he hopes the state Legislature continues to allow mayors to have the final say on travel rules.
“At this time I hope the House and the Legislature realize that this is not something that’s needed right now,” Victorino said. “Let us run our counties over which we have a great understanding about.”
* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at [email protected].
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