I Traveled to Hawaii During the Coronavirus Pandemic — Here's What It Was Like

Surfers launch from Kahanamoku Beach on Oahu's south shore on Friday, Oct. 16, 2020 in Honolulu, HI.

If the pandemic has left you desperate for a change of scenery, you’re not alone. There are only so many virtual tours of far-flung places you can watch before all you can think about is how and when you can go there in person. But travel is no longer as simple as adding a destination to your bucket list and waiting until you find an affordable plane ticket — with COVID-19 there are health risks and ethical factors to consider, like putting other people (either at your destination or when you return home) at risk.

While considering the risks and rewards of traveling during a pandemic, I was drawn to Hawaii’s new pre-flight testing program. In September, Hawaii announced that it was lifting its 14-day quarantine requirements for travelers who test negative for coronavirus within 72 hours of departure. The initiative went into effect on Oct. 15.

“Residents are cautiously optimistic that the state’s pre-travel testing program will work to safely welcome visitors to the islands without a 14-day quarantine while also protecting the health and well-being of kama`aina,” Monica Salter, vice president of corporate communications for Outrigger Hospitality Group, told Travel + Leisure by email.

As part of the state’s first wave of tourists (I flew two days after the quarantine lifted), I was able to experience the new requirements and the current state of Hawaii first-hand. And I’m here to share everything I learned so you can spend less time Googling “what do I need to do before I fly to Hawaii” and more time learning how to say “good morning” in Hawaiian or shopping for a new bikini.

Is Hawaii safe to visit right now?

As long as the virus is alive and well, staying at home is your safest option. But unlike drivable U.S. destinations, which saw a surge in summer visitors, Hawaii’s beaches remained quiet and its hotels empty. The result is well under 15,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases at the time of writing.

To keep that number low even as tourism returns, the Hawaii State Department of Health has issued a few state-specific guidelines. Indoor activities and indoor restaurant seating are operating at 50 percent capacity, and groups are restricted to five people who must be within the same family or “quarantine pod.” Masking up and the six-foot rule is the norm, both indoors and outdoors, and many places require you to fill out a contact tracing form.

In addition, visitors must either show proof of a negative test or quarantine for 14 days, while the state’s Safe Travels program screens and monitors travelers.

Do locals support the reopening?

As you might imagine, the return of tourism is both daunting and necessary for Hawaii. On one hand, the lack of visitors has helped the state maintain a relatively low number of COVID-19 cases. On the other hand, initial unemployment claims are up 680 percent over last year.

“In every community there is an inherent polarity between those who are pro-business and those at the opposite end of the spectrum. Both sides care about quality of life in our communities, but that inherent polarity is always going to produce a debate, if not a controversy, about whether we are moving too fast or too slow,” said President of the Hawaii Tourism Authority John De Fries in a phone interview. He noted that pre-pandemic, Hawaii welcomed around 29,000 people a day, and that since Oct. 15, that number has been hovering around 6,000 to 7,000.

In short, travelers taking advantage of the new pre-travel testing program should focus on masking up, maintaining a safe distance, and treading lightly in order to help keep Hawaii open while showing respect to both the island and local communities.

What do you need to do before traveling to Hawaii?

After you book your flight, register for the Safe Travels online program. This will be your portal for everything COVID-related. Next, review the state’s “trusted testing and travel partners” and come up with a plan for when and where you’ll be tested — keep in mind, you’ll need to take the test within 72 hours of your departure flight.

It’s worth noting that Hawaii only accepts an FDA-authorized nucleic acid amplification test (NAAT) and that it must be administered from one of its testing partners. On this list there’s a mix of location-specific facilities (like AFC Urgent Care Portland) and national programs, like the free Walgreens program that I used. Keep in mind that if you’re flying United Airlines out of San Francisco (SFO) it’s even easier — thanks to a partnership between United and Color, you’ll get an email a week before your flight and arrange a test at the airport.

Once you have your test results, upload a PDF to your Safe Travels account. You’ll need to show this to the arrival team when you land in Hawaii. If your results are still pending, you can still board the plane, but when you land in Hawaii, you’ll have to quarantine until you get a negative result. Travelers with a positive result must quarantine for 14 days upon arrival and contact Hawaii’s State Department of Health.

And finally, within 24 hours of your departure flight, you’ll need to log into your Safe Travels portal and take the health questionnaire. Once that’s completed, you’ll be given a QR code that will be scanned by the arrival team at the airport in Hawaii and at your hotel on the islands.

What is it like to fly to and from Hawaii right now?

This was my first flight since the pandemic and I wanted to limit my time in airports, so I booked a direct flight from Denver (DIA) to Oahu’s Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (HNL) with United Airlines. My flight was scheduled for Oct. 17 — two days after the state’s new pre-travel testing program went into effect — and I was notified by United the night before my departure that the plane was expected to be fairly full.

When I got to DIA, there was the usual queue at the check-in desk — although they had new, no-touch check-in kiosks and bag drops — and the airport was busier than I expected. Unless they were eating or drinking, everyone was wearing a face covering. When it was time to board, they called us by rows, rather than “priority,” so they could board the plane from back to front. As we filed on, a flight attendant handed out sanitation wipes and seating assignments were adjusted to give space between passengers from different parties.

The normally packed stretch of Wakiki Beach has seen much less travelers since the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic, on the southern shore of the island of Oahu on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020 in Honolulu, HI.

What happens when you land in Hawaii?

On arrival, a thermal temperature screener checks everyone’s temperature. From there, you’re funneled toward a welcome team who will scan the QR code generated when you took the health questionnaire, manually review your COVID-19 test results (if you have them), and take your temperature. If everything checks out, you can leave the airport. If your test results are still pending or you have symptoms, the team will direct you to next steps.

For travelers to Oahu, no second after-arrival test is needed, but travelers to the island of Hawaii are required to take a free second test upon arrival at the airport. If you’re flying directly into Maui or Kauai, you’re encouraged to take a voluntary test within 72 hours of arrival.

If you’re hoping to travel between the islands during your trip, things can get complicated as each island is managing its own inter-island quarantine process. In general, all inter-island travel is subject to a 14-day quarantine. However, if you just have a layover at Oahu’s Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (HNL) and have a connecting flight to another island, a negative pre-travel test result is good through to your final destination.

What’s it like staying in a hotel on Oahu right now?

Many hotels on Oahu are still closed, with many reopening in early- to mid-November. However, some of the island’s most luxurious properties are now open with some carefully thought-out safety protocols in place.

Sitting right off Waikiki Beach, the ‘Alohilani Resort Waikiki Beach makes an immediate impression. Before you even step foot in your room, prepare to be awed by the intricate coral-inspired sculpture behind the front desk and the fish circling in the lobby’s two-story aquarium. The rooms are clean and contemporary, with plenty of light. I recommend booking a room with views of Diamond Head and spending a day sipping daiquiris in the infinity pool. Throughout the property, the brand’s “Be Well. Stay Well.” protocols are in place. In addition to typical safety requirements, touchless hand sanitizer stations are everywhere and an in-room safety kit with a face mask, disposable gloves, and disinfectant wipes is provided.

Similarly, the Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort’s “Clean Commitment” platform was developed with Ecolab to put guests at ease. Salter notes that it “incorporates state-of-the-art technology such as UV Wands and Electrostatic Sprayers, as well as host training, social distancing, and surface cleaning.” If you’re looking for a place to hunker down while enjoying all the benefits of Waikiki, this is the place to be. The resort has direct beach access, an oceanside pool, and a handful of restaurants to choose from — including beachside bites (often with live music) at Duke’s.

For families and long-stay visitors, The Ritz-Carlton Residences, Waikiki Beach is hard to top. Every room — or rather residence — has its own separate living space and views of the ocean. At their largest, the residences can accommodate up to 10 people in a spacious four-bedroom with a luxury kitchen (clocking in at just under 3,000 square feet). For the safety of guests and staff, housekeeping does a deep clean of the room before every arrival, and items that can’t be properly cleaned have been removed. In addition, for a touch-free experience, guests can check in, check out, and request hotel services using the Marriott Bonvoy mobile app.

Luz Gutierrez, 54, and her daughter, Jane Gutierrez, 30, both of Hawaii Kai, watch the sunrise from the Makapuu Point Lighthouse Trail on the eastern shore of the island of Oahu on Monday, Oct. 19, 2020

What can you do on Oahu right now?

While some activities and shops are still closed, there’s still plenty to do. Depending on where you go and what you do, they may ask for your name, phone number, and lodging details, so they can contact you if they think you might’ve come in contact with someone who has the virus.

If you’re feeling cautious, it doesn’t get much more COVID-19 safe than the beach. For a socially distanced activity, pick up a surfboard from Moku for under $10 or book a $40 lesson with a pro.

For a little culture, swing by Bishop Museum, which is devoted to Native Hawaiian and Pacific history and culture. You can walk through their native Hawaiian garden or journey through the various realms of Hawaii in the Hawaiian Hall. And art lovers won’t want to miss a visit to the Honolulu Museum of Art. The collection of over 50,000 pieces — including Hawaiian art — is perfectly complemented by outdoor walkways and courtyards lined with flowers, trees, and sculpture. And finally, don’t leave the island without a visit to Pearl Harbor. Access to the two museums and the USS Arizona Memorial are open to the public and free of charge.

For those interested in leaving Honolulu and heading north, a trip to One Ocean Diving is a must. On their daily small-group shark swims, visitors can get up close and personal with a variety of sharks — from sandbar sharks to whale sharks and great whites — without the hindrance of a cage. With a 100-percent safety record, One Ocean offers a truly one-of-a-kind experience that everyone raves about (myself included).

Where can you (and should you) eat on Oahu?

While a few restaurants are still closed, most are open and ready to welcome back travelers. If you want to dine in, you’ll have to give your name, phone number, and lodging details (and sometimes, your home address), and will be required to keep your group size to five people of the same household or “pod.”

For traditional Hawaiian fare, swing by Highway Inn and order the popular Kālua Pig combo plate (which comes with haupia). Or try the upscale MW Restaurant for a plate of sweet and sour Mt. View Farms spareribs or the grilled hamachi kama. For some of the island’s best poke, swing by Maguro Brothers Waikiki, Ahi Assassins, or Tamura’s Market, and if you’re craving Japanese food, visit Marugame Udon, where they make their chewy udon noodles right in front of you.

For a quick, sweet treat, pick up a malasada from Leonard’s Bakery or a slice of haupia pie from Ted’s Bakery. And, of course, you’ll want to get a cup of shave ice from Waiola’s (at least once).

What can you do to be a responsible traveler?

Travel is not as carefree as it once was. When you leave your home, you risk putting yourself and others in danger. Being a good traveler in 2020 means planning a trip in a way that minimizes risk (fewer layovers, safe destinations), researching and following local protocols, staying home if you feel sick, and getting tested — or at the very least, laying low — once you return home.

“The visitor needs to be educated in how to take care of us as a place and as a people, so there are certain expectations that we have of the visitors — wearing a mask, social distancing, and avoiding large crowds,” said De Fries. “We all need to be doing this as a means of protecting one another. It’s going to come down to our ability to behave differently as individuals and as members of the general public.”

In today’s world, we all must weigh the risks and rewards that are inherent to traveling during a pandemic. If you decide to visit Hawaii, abiding by the Hawaiian value of malama — caring for the environment and for one another — will go a long way toward keeping Hawaii open and keeping yourself and the people around you safe.

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