As much as we all want the COVID-19 pandemic to be over, to get things “back to normal” requires economic recovery. The critical question is not when we will recover, but how do we recover. In Hawaii, our isolation and relatively small population is an advantage in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic. However, our reliance on tourism and re-establishing a substantial influx of new arrivals by air and cruise ship while staying safe is a more complex matter to solve.

rental cars kahului Maui

A sea of rental cars around Kahului airport.

In addition to what we do here in Hawaii, how our nation handles economic recovery, as well as a broader world view, is important to our state, especially as these scenarios affect travel.

First, let’s map out the issues and look at potential recovery solutions within our state, with some specific examples from Maui County.

The University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization (UHERO) published a study on April 4, 2020 titled “How to Control Hawaii’s Coronavirus Epidemic and Bring Back the Economy: The Next Steps.” According to the report, increased COVID-19 testing and contact tracing combined with mandated mask use and isolation of exposed and infected individuals is the most important and basic steps for the State. Then, measurable targets can be implemented to bring back the economy while staving off a reoccurring outbreak.

Here are few points to consider.

Current Quarantine and Gaps

park violations Maui
Line of cars outside closed Ho’okipa Beach Park

It would not be surprising for the current Hawaii quarantine to be extended past April, as many locations around the country and world are still grappling with epidemics. State and Maui County quarantines emphasizes stay at home/work at home except for essential work and tasks like going to the grocery store. Still, Maui county has had to step in and enforce rules about people not gathering.

There is currently not an effective system in place to monitor new arrivals to confirm they are following quarantine orders. Kenneth Hara, Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency director, told lawmakers on April 7th that it appears most visitors aren’t adhering to the quarantine order.

Initially, it is critical to keep travel at very low levels to keep the focus on controlling community transmission. According to UHERO research, community transmission in Hawaii was listed as the source of 12% of 186 cases for residents through March 31st, but there were another 26% of cases whose source of exposure remains unknown.

Community transmission is happening in Hawaii. On Maui, 15 new cases were identified in one day among employees at Maui Memorial Medical Center. According to a call to Kaiser Permante on April 5th, COVID-19 tests were only being given to those that have a high fever and/or severe respiratory symptoms, or have had direct contact with a COVID-19 patient. Those with mild or no symptoms, as of that date, were not being tested.

Quarantine Solutions

Epidemiologists and infectious-disease specialists support widespread testing as part of the strategy for resuming work activities safely. However, labs are still scrambling to ramp up testing.

For visitors, UHERO suggests methods to improve monitoring and compliance, such as electronic medical bracelets for new arrivals, as is being done in Hong Kong, or possibly a phone app. The state could request airlines and travel companies inform all potential visitors about the state and inter-island quarantines prior to travelers booking their itineraries.

Tapping into visitor marketing channels to expand awareness of strict visitor quarantines may also deter visitors while Hawaii and the country recovers.

Indicators of Recovery

UHERO continues that once the following four criteria have been achieved, Governor Ige can consider removing the stay-at-home and social distancing orders in a phased manner.

  1. When the State of Hawaii reports a sustained reduction in the number of new cases for at least 14 days i.e., one incubation period.

  2. When hospitals in each county are safely able to treat all patients requiring hospitalization (for both COVID-19 and other serious medical conditions) without resorting to crisis standards of care and use of overflow facilities, such as arenas and convention centers, to provide hospital care to patients;

  3. When the State of Hawaii identifies sufficient public and private capacity to test all people with coronavirus symptoms;

  4. When the Hawaii State Department of Health has the capacity to conduct active monitoring of all people with coronavirus symptoms, who should remain quarantined, and to trace close contacts of virus carriers.

Path to Economic Recovery
Even though Hawaii’s GDP is 77 percent non-tourism related, we know a massive economic shut down like we are seeing affects us all. Maui is more reliant on tourism than other counties in the state. However, reopening businesses in Hawaii that do not rely on direct interaction with tourists is the first step to consider according to UHERO, and could be done when the four indicators of recovery have been met.

Tourism is predicted to take longer to restart and the non-tourist economy, but could happen as early as this summer with expanded testing and other community safeguards, as well as rapid antigen and antibody tests for visitors.

Current COVID-19 testing only detects if a person has the virus. Other serology testing can detect if the person is asymptomatic or has recovered from COVID-19. You can read about different types of COVID-19 testing, both approved and pending, on the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health website.

A more pessimistic view would be that tourism would recover when the visitor’s place of origin has COVID-19 completely under control, or when there is a vaccine. This forecast predicts tourism flows in 12-18 months. Cruise ships may have difficulty reentering the market until all passengers and crew can be vaccinated, so it is predicted this industry would see the longer length of time for market recovery.

External Factors

The actions of consumers and employers nationwide are key factors in recovery timing.

Keep in mind that about 1 in 10 workers have already lost their jobs, and income has been cut in half for about half of U.S. households, according to the Associated Press. Companies are also being hit hard, as they try and slash expenses and preserve financial resources.

We are yet to see the impact of economic stimulus packages, and whether enough will trickle down to medium and small businesses.

Here in Hawaii, we went from a booming economy to a dismal outlook in less than a month. A rapid snapback is not realistic.



To leave you on a positive note, Hawaii may become particularly attractive as a vacation destination later this year if it is one of the first global visitor destinations to have its epidemic under control. U.S. vacationers may have more confidence traveling to Hawaii’s exotic shores than Europe or other international destinations.

If you would like to track economic recovery data during the COVID-19 outbreak, the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism put together a dashboard with tabs for Daily Passenger Counts, Initial Unemployment Claims, Monthly Economic Indicators, and Current Economic Conditions. While passenger counts and unemployment claims are updated regularly, economic indicators and economic conditions are lagging 1 – 2 months behind.