Highlights of Hawai‘i State Senate Special Committee on COVID-19 meeting of Thursday, April 7
The committee first met with Sean Williams, Vice President of Airlines for America, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. A4A represents Delta, American, Hawaiian, Southwest, and Alaska Airlines, as well as UPS and FedEx, for passenger and cargo flights.
Regarding federal and state COVID-19 mandates, Williams said that the CARES Act requires airlines receiving aid to continue to provide minimum levels of service to markets that they serviced before the passage of the act. Airlines can request approval for suspending certain flights.
Passenger volume in Hawai‘i is down 98% compared to last year. Fare data for part of 2020 has not yet been released by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Williams said A4A surveyed one airline about fare values to the state, and found that that airline’s fare prices were down 5% on average, assuming it is an accurate reflection on other airlines’ fares.
The Special Committee challenged these findings based on numerous cases of cheap fares coming into the state, finding it counterproductive to the state’s efforts to minimize non-essential travel into Hawai‘i at this time.
Regarding current airline procedures, Williams said that, under current law, if a crew member suspects a passenger has any type of infectious disease, then they are required to contact a medical professional to determine if the passenger’s condition needs to be reported. The committee insisted that it be communicated to all airlines that the state’s agricultural forms are required for officers, crew, and passengers.
Attorney General Clare Connors, Department of Transportation Airports Administrator Ford Fuchigami, and Hawaii Tourism Authority CEO Chris Tatum also reported to the Special Committee with updates.
The current end date for the 14-day quarantine program is May 31, but it will likely be extended. Per the committee’s request, the AG will confer with the Department of Health regarding the plan for the continuation of the program and report back to the committee.
The HTA, AG, and DOT are currently working with the airlines to ensure they consistently notify travelers of the quarantine. As part of the airport screening process, anyone who does not seem able or willing to comply with the quarantine order is encouraged to take a return flight immediately. Those opting to remain despite no ability or willingness to comply are then arrested. Any passenger, with exceptions for essential workers, who cannot confirm a return flight is encouraged to comply with the law, depart immediately, or face arrest.
Any visitor or resident who cannot provide a legal residential address will be referred to law enforcement. Under the current emergency proclamations, even permitted vacation rentals cannot legally operate. The HTA has provided a list of permitted vacation rental addresses for use in the vetting of visitor’s submitted addresses.
Per the committee’s request, the DOT has revamped the visitor form being used to acquire pertinent information. As soon as all changes are finalized, that new form will go into use. Flight officers and crew are now also required to complete the forms.
The Special Committee also requests that the AG review options to allow the state to require all travelers (exempting essential workers) to have a confirmed return flight. Airport workers have been provided with a script to use with each visitor that clarifies and emphasizes the importance of adhering to and understanding the legal implications of violating the quarantine order.
As for the long term of the airport screening process, the DOT is reviewing plans to create one that can be scaled to account for a large number of visitors. This process would be similar to the method used by the Transportation Security Administration to screen passengers upon arrival at the airport.
Initial estimates indicate a need for 114 additional airport staff and a cost of approximately $15 million per year to operate Daniel K. Inouye International Airport alone. The DOT is exploring funding options such as a traveler fee and increasing airline fees to cover the cost of such a program. Several western states have joined Hawai‘i in requesting that the Federal Aviation Administration determine whether such fees could be used to cover screening programs.
Per the committee’s request, hotels are voluntarily issuing room keys that work only on the first day of a stay. Any visitor who leave their room will need to go to the front desk to be let back into the room. The hotel will then report those who have violated the quarantine.
HTA will provide a list to the committee of all hotels both participating and not participating in the room key program, as well as an accounting of any reported violations discovered through this program. The committee requests that the AG determine whether the room key program can be made mandatory in the next emergency proclamation.
On the subject of essential workers, they are required to quarantine whether traveling from the mainland or a neighbor island. They must be in quarantine during non-work hours. Returning residents who are essential workers must also do the same. During work hours, essential workers are required to use proper safety procedures and personal protective equipment.
State legislators are defined as essential workers, and those traveling from neighbor islands will be required to quarantine during non-work hours.
Airline flight officers and crew are not included in the definition of essential workers and are required to quarantine.
Per the committee’s request, visitors wishing to rent a car must provide a documented quarantine exemption before being allowed to rent a car. The AG is working on a system to enforce the car rental ban.
Violators of the quarantine are being arrested and prosecuted. The HTA reports suspected violators to the AG for investigation. Citizen suspecting a violation are asked to call 911 to make a report.
For returning residents, the HTA is now calling their homes to track compliance with quarantine. Suspected violators are referred to the AG for investigation.
HTA has contracted for an improved database to track visitors that will allow quicker data sharing with law enforcement. Anyone who assists a visitor or returning resident in violating the quarantine order could be charged with a criminal violation for conspiracy or failure to report.
The AG and the Governor are asking that the courts require a set bail amount for any arrested violators. Currently, most of them are being released on their own recognizance.
Prosecutors are also requesting electronic tracking bracelets to be required as a condition of release for violators who intend to remain in the islands.
Scott Murakami, Director of the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, updated the committee on the new processing system.
The department is accepting claims certification on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday alphabetically. Eighty-four thousand applicants are still in the claims process. On Wednesday, May 6, 1,600 phone calls were returned.
Concerning the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, while over 40,000 applicants were denied unemployment insurance (UI) benefits so far, Murakami said a significant number may qualify for PUA benefits. To receive those benefits, applicants must first be denied UI benefits. This is a U.S. Department of Labor rule, so applicants likely eligible for PUA must still apply for the state-run UI program.
Rona Suzuki, Director of the Department of Taxation (DoTax), reported that her department will begin testing how the PUA system works at processing applications this weekend. If the testing runs smoothly, then general processing will begin Friday, May 15. Those who already submitted a pre-application might be contacted again for additional information if new features were added.
Once applicants are denied UI benefits, they then can apply for PUA to see if they are eligible. Generally, those eligible for PUA are self-employed, do not have sufficient work history to qualify for regular UI, or have exhausted their rights to regular UI benefits or extended benefits. The reasons for benefits must be pandemic related.
For more information about eligibility and application process visit https://labor.hawaii.gov/covid-19-pandemic-unemployment-assistance-faqs/ . (As a side note, Uber and Lyft drivers are considered employees of their respective companies, so they are only eligible for UI benefits and not PUA benefits.)