Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives.
Hawaii in February. It sounded wonderful, but deciding to travel in the middle of a pandemic took me some time. I had all kinds of safety concerns. After much back and forth with my husband, we agreed to meet our daughters in Keauhou on the Big Island, where they had planned a “Work from Hawaii” getaway. We planned to arrive on the Big Island a couple of days earlier than the girls, stay for 10 days, and head for a five-day stay in Oahu, the only island that did not require a new COVID-19 test for inter-island travel. The logistics of booking a flight, reserving a townhouse, and getting a fast-turnaround COVID-19 test just prior to travel, proved to be not-too-difficult.
In the early hours of a cold morning, a plastic-ensconced Uber driver sped us to the airport to catch our flight. At the airport, we both sported a mask and a face shield—I thought we must have looked a tad paranoid. On board our first flight to San Francisco, we were thrilled to discover we each had an entire row of three seats to ourselves, all for the price of economy tickets. The mask and shield did not bother us as we stretched across the three seats and slept. Things were going well!
We landed and had barely an hour before boarding the flight to Kona. Next to our flight gate, I noticed long lines and a sign that said, “Pre-Screening for Hawaii Travelers.” We had already uploaded the results of our test and a Hawaii Health Form to the Safe Travels Hawaii website—but just in case, I asked the flight attendant at our gate whether we needed to do anything more. He shrugged and told me that the screening was for other flights and ours would be in Kona.
On the flight to Kona, we once again each had an empty row in economy. Business class, in contrast, was crowded. “Cheap thrills!” I texted my friends. Things got even more exciting as we descended and I saw the contrast between the azure of the middle of the Pacific and the turquoise waters skirting the edges of the Big Island.
We shuffled out of the plane into the mostly open-air airport. The weather was great, especially in comparison with cold D.C. We heard a screening agent intoning, “have your QR code ready please.” I found mine easily in an email that Safe Travels Hawaii had sent me, but my husband scrolled through his inbox without success. An agent had to help log him into his account to retrieve his QR code. OK, we are good, we thought. That was until the agent at the podium called for a supervisor. We looked at each other, now slightly anxious. “Your COVID-19 test is not from a Hawaii trusted partner,” the supervisor told us.
I had been sure our $200 per person COVID -19 test results from a reputable pharmacy would be accepted, mostly because I hadn’t found another option to meet Hawaii’s testing requirements. The state required that we get tested at a maximum of 72 hours prior to boarding and have the result ready to show upon arrival. Though the Safe Travels Hawaii program has a long list of approved partners for COVID-19 tests, they were mostly located on the West Coast, or else did not offer the kind of quick-turnaround test that was required. I had even taken screenshots of the websites for CVS, Walgreens, and other major pharmacies to show that in our area, no partner provided test results that would definitely come back within that 72-hour window. None of that mattered. (I learned later that in the Northern Virginia area, mail-in testing would have been our best option at the time; though now there is also approved testing at major airports.)
Then followed a roundabout exchange with the agent, which I recall going like this:
Agent: Your options are to quarantine for 10 days in a state-approved hotel or return home.
Me: What? Can’t we quarantine in the Airbnb we booked?
Agent: No. You will have to book a hotel and stay in your room for 10 days.
Husband: Can we take a test here or maybe go back to San Francisco, take another test there, and come back?
Agent: Sir, you can take a test here, but you must still quarantine for 10 days. To avoid quarantine, you should have a negative COVID-19 test result from a Hawaii partner before you board the plane to Hawaii. And as for testing in San Francisco, and returning, I can’t tell you if that will work. The system may not let you in as you have been identified for quarantine.
Husband: Can we talk to anybody else to check about other options?
Agent (visibly irritated): No, sir, your options are to quarantine for 10 days in an approved hotel or return home. You need to decide right away.
Frantically, I called the 1-800 number for Safe Travels Hawaii, but the lady who took the call told me she only dealt with health form technical issues. She gave me another phone number, but the person answering seemed puzzled as to why I was even calling. We checked again with the screening agents. They just wanted us to decide and move on. Desperate, I started searching the internet for advice. But there was nothing on any site to guide us through the ins and outs of pandemic travel bureaucracy. Our vacation was simply going to slip away from us before it even began. After a round of back-to-back calls to family and United Airlines, we signed the requisite forms stating we were returning to D.C.
There were a couple of upsides to our trip. The flights were great. At Kona Airport, I spotted a new bird, the red-crested cardinal, which is apparently common to Hawaii. Our saga jerked our daughters into waking up to Hawaii’s COVID-19 testing realities and compelled them to ensure they had test results from a Hawaii partner before their trip.
I wish the agents at Kona Airport had known more about how to address situations like ours. It was disheartening. Thirty-six hours after we’d left, we returned to a slow-moving snowstorm in the Northern Virginia area, texts from friends requesting pictures from paradise, and a coming-to-terms laugh about our misadventure.