The Power of a Democratic Government: Safe Travels Hawaii
Updated: Mar 5, 2021
I am a lucky human being who lives a charmed existence. I was born in Honolulu, Hawaii to a mother who got her master's degree and a father who was a renaissance man. They afforded me an excellent education and encouraged me to walk through all of the doors of opportunity that I would happen to walk by. I have lived all over the United States and worked in two rewarding, high profile fields in my 20-some-odd-years of adulthood. And when Covid hit, I had the ability to move back to my hometown on Oʻahu.
One of the main reasons why I decided to move back home was because the State of Hawaii has done a much better job of combatting Covid19 than pretty much every other state or commonwealth. Hawaii has certain natural advantages when it comes to combatting a pandemic. Our population is relatively small, ~1.4 million people, and because we are an archipelago in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, we have controlled entry into the state at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport. The fact that we have high humidity and it is pretty much summer all year round here makes it more inhospitable to the coronavirus. Plus, over 200 years of post-colonial experience has taught kamaʻaina to be wary of visitors who may bring disease. Kama'aina tend to be compliant, and thus mask-wearing and social distancing have been, for the most part, widely accepted here. All of this combines to produce the safest infection numbers in the county. For example, on March 3, 2021, only 20 new cases of Covid19 were reported state-wide.
With Covid under relative control, and restrictions beginning to be relaxed, I decided to hop on a flight and go and visit my mother and step-father who live in Montana, to do some trout fishing, and to pick up my cat Basil, whom I had part ways with in November when I moved home. (I will probably write a future blog about this experience, as I have spent the better part of the last 6 months getting him into compliance with the state department of agriculture's animal control standards, and he was finally cleared to also become a resident of Hawaii.) I was excited to see my folks, and fully educated myself on the regulations for travel and subsequent reentry into Hawaii.
In order to avoid a mandatory 10-day quarantine upon arrival into the state of Hawaii, every traveler must provide a negative Covid19 test, administered by a "trusted provider," at most 72 hours before the final leg of one's trip into the Aloha State.
Knowing this, I traveled to Montana. My parents and Basil were in good health, and I scheduled a Covid19 test at the local Walgreens. The test was administered at the drive-thru window and was overnight shipped from Great Falls, Montana to a Nashville, Tennessee lab to be processed. I was informed my results would post "potentially within 24 hours, but more likely within 48 hours," and so my family and I headed out to Craig, Montana to enjoy a day at my cousin's cabin by the Missouri River with freshwater fishing poles in our hands.
We had a very successful outing. My step-father, cousin, and I managed to catch about ten pounds of trout, which we filleted up, smoked, and vacuum sealed. As I said, I live a very charmed existence.
48 hours went by and my results didn't come back. I began to panic. I most certainly did not want to quarantine! I called the corporation that administered the test processing facility in Tennessee and they told me that due to a "weather issue" that my test had likely arrived late and was sitting in a processing queue. (Understand, I contracted Covid19 when the first wave of the virus hit the USA in March / April of 2020 when I DJed karaoke at a bar in Sherman Oaks for a wedding party. I got sick with symptoms, got a little scared, and one month after I recovered, a blood test revealed that indeed I had the precious Covid antibodies, and thus I became a convalescent plasma donor. This is all to say, I was pretty sure I was going to test negative for the virus.)
Be all that as it may, it didn't change the fact that I was in Montana, facing a transpacific flight into Honolulu, without my necessary negative test results. I kept my fingers crossed. We packed up the smoked trout and all of Basil's belongings into two suitcases and headed out to the Great Falls airport to begin my journey home with Basil. I hoped that my results would be posted before I landed for a four-hour stopover in Seattle. But these hopes were not fulfilled.
Panicking further, I called the Hawaii State Travels hotline, and after waiting on hold for about two hours, finally spoke with a human about my specific situation with my cat, (who himself would have to be held for 8 hours at the airport post-arrival), and my lacking a negative test. The very nice individual at the Safe Travels hotline confirmed that I would be S.O.L. if my test wasn't uploaded to the Safe Travels website before I boarded my flight back to Honolulu. My only recourse would be to apply for an exemption with the state of Hawaii's Attorney General. I did so, and within an hour, my exemption request was denied.
I was hit with a wave of fear that turned into anger. This whole situation was messed up. I fully respect and believe in the pre-travel testing protocols. Folks should have to take a Covid test to avoid quarantining when they arrive in Hawaii. If they test positive they should be forced to quarantine, but if they test negative they should also be allowed to go about their lives and engage in all of the taxable commerce available to people in the State of Hawaii. But it makes no sense that a person should have to remain in quarantine if their negative test results arrive late by no fault of their own!
I kept my fingers crossed, spoke with the attendants at the Alaska Airlines gate, who with very sad faces confirmed my S.O.L.-ness if my test didn't arrive. It didn't. I boarded, and the flight took off. I was going to have to quarantine.
When our airplane hit 10,000 feet, I turned on my phone's wifi and decided to write to all of my local representatives. Given the low Covid case count, I thought maybe I might be able to reason with my local electeds and force some sort of a quick policy change. I wrote detailed letters to my State Senator Sharon Moriwaki, City Councilperson Tommy Waters, and my State Representative. I was truly amazed that Councilman Waters responded within 15 minutes to my initial email! He informed me that there was little he could do, and he was happy that I had already reached out to Senator Moriwaki, as she might be able to help out because she had more to do with the administration of the Safe Travels program than he did. I smiled in my seat impressed at how quickly I could get a response from a local elected and had a small sense of optimism that maybe my situation could be resolved in an intelligent and timely manner.
My flight landed after another four hours. I was ushered by a Hawaii department of agriculture representative to the Covid screening line, the one for the people without their pre-travel testing, and had a friendly conversation with a tired-eyed Safe Travels agent. I told her my sob story, about my cat, and how I needed to pick him up at the airport tomorrow, and if I had to quarantine, it would be illegal for me to do so. She told me there was nothing that could be done and then called over her supervisor who then told me this whole thing is a mess due to the fact that "[Governor] Ige changed the rules" after the Thanksgiving Covid surge. It turns out the original Safe Travels policy was to release people from quarantine who had late-arriving negative tests.
I surrendered Basil to the department of the agriculture holding area and caught an Uber back to my Waikiki apartment. I got home, unpacked, and before I went to bed, received a second response email, this time from Senator Moriwaki, who kindly wrote me to let me know that she would see what could be done because my testing issue was no fault of my own.
The following day, my girlfriend went to pick up Basil from the airport, and I ordered grocery deliveries and resumed working remotely while observing quarantine. About halfway through the day, I received an email from the Walgreens testing facility which included a PDF confirming my negative Covid19 test result. I shook my darned head and decided to re-apply for a Covid19 quarantine exemption, now with the proof that didn't have Covid19.
Another day went by, and low and behold, I received an email back from the Hawaii State Attorney General's office granting me a quarantine exemption. I did have to quarantine for a little less than two days, but at the end of this whole experience, I must say, my faith in local government is somewhat reinforced. Yes, it was a questionable policy decision to disallow late-arriving tests from returning residents to end quarantine. But the fact that I was able to contact my local representatives who were responsive, and the fact that the state government had set up an appeal system where my exemption request was able to be processed in under 72 hours is pretty impressive.
At the end of the day, I want to say a heartfelt mahalo to Councilman Tommy Waters and State Senator Moriwaki, and to the people who processed my quarantine exemption request at Hawaii State Attorney General Clare Connors' office. Also a huge mahalo to my girlfriend, who took care of picking up Basil from the airport, which was a different nightmarish issue.
And folks, if you're still reading this, remember you have agency. If I didn't contact my representatives and reach out to all the powers that be, I would still be under quarantine orders. Don't ever lose the audacity to ask for an appeal or help. Democracy can work if you engage with it. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and work to make things right! I'm lucky this was a fairly minor issue, and I did all of the legwork to have my negative Covid19 test results viewed by the decision-makers. But by doing your due diligence you can help to create better policy outcomes for you and your family.