Sheltered from virus, Kauai plans cautious return to tourism

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A person stands in front of the Pacific Ocean at The Cliffs at Princeville resort, one of several "resort bubble" properties on Kauai, Friday, March 5, 2021, in Princeville, Hawaii. The rural island of Kauai in Hawaii is one of the world's most sought-after vacation destinations, but it has been nearly impossible to visit for most of the past year because of quarantine and other coronavirus restrictions. But the economy has suffered and now local officials are loosening restrictions. (AP Photo/Caleb Jones)

LIHUE, Hawaii – As the coronavirus ravaged other parts of the U.S., residents of this rural Pacific island watched safely from afar.

Kauai, one of the world’s most sought-after vacation destinations, has been nearly impossible to visit for most of the past year, with officials bucking pressure to ease quarantine rules as the state’s economy tanked.

As a result, Hawaii’s least populated county has been one of the safest places to be. Hair salons were open, many kids went to school and played team sports, and residents enjoyed restaurants, bars and beaches without the typical hordes of visitors — or the fears of surging virus numbers. As of this week, Kauai has had only 218 confirmed COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic, compared with more than 28,000 statewide.

Now, local officials are loosening restrictions, saying early measures and the island’s departure from a state testing program that allowed in more people gave it time to build a strong foundation of public health. A unique “resort bubble” program also helped Kauai bring back some tourists and prepare to reopen more broadly.

“From a big picture society standpoint, it allowed Kauai to get to a baseline of sort of what the new normal was going to be in the middle of a pandemic,” Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami said.

The county’s resort bubble program, or Enhanced Movement Quarantine, has been running for almost three months.

It allows visitors to come to Kauai if they get two negative COVID-19 tests and spend three days either on another island or at a county-approved resort property. If they stay at one of the resorts, they wear monitoring devices but can roam the grounds and use amenities.

Participants must be tested 72 hours before they get to Hawaii and again 72 hours after arrival to be released from quarantine.