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Hawaii lieutenant governor urges tourists not to visit as COVID-19 cases climb

Josh Green, Lieutenant Governor of Hawaii, talks about the Delta variant's effect on the state.

Video Transcript

- Welcome back to "Yahoo Finance Live." The rise of the Delta variant continues to impact travel plans, and there's probably no better example right now to point to than what's going on in the state of Hawaii. The Aloha state there had become the poster child of summer travel rebounding when daily passenger counts fully surpassed, or at least got close to, the 2019 levels we saw back in the summer in July. But since then, travelers have been falling. The governor of the state of Hawaii has now even called on travelers to postpone trips, saying now is not the time to visit the islands.

And for more on the stalled recovery there that is so emblematic of what's going on everywhere in the US, happy to bring back on the lieutenant governor of Hawaii. Dr. Josh Green joins us once again. And welcome back to the show, sir. I mean, it's been a tough 180 to see play out because you had done so much to make sure that travelers could come and Hawaii could safely reopen. Daily cases now up more than tenfold from where they were back in July, so talk to me about what you're doing right now to maybe prevent that from moving in the wrong direction.

JOSH GREEN: Sure. Thank you for having me. Well, they're up tenfold because we were down at 49 cases a day back on July 1st, but doubtless we have had a Delta surge like many have had, in fact everyone across the country has experienced. As you know, Hawaii is very dependent on tourism.

And so back in the beginning of the pandemic, when we completely shut the state, you reported very well that we were devastated. We dropped our travel 99.6%, and that shut down the economy and COVID at the same time. We were able to rebuild our economy and rebuild travel with the Safe Travels program that began on October 15th last year, but as cases have surged, the governor asked us just this week to kind of hit the pause button on travel to Hawaii until October.

My message to everyone is be smart, be safe. Only travel, no matter where you're traveling in America, if you're fully vaccinated. As a physician, I'm seeing the impact on our hospitals. Our hospitals are now full in the state of Hawaii because we've had a large surge since July 4th. And when I say full, I mean so full with COVID patients that we don't have any access to transfer other patients, like heart attack patients and stroke patients that I see in the hospital, because we don't have ICU beds. So we just want people to be safe and travel if they're vaccinated.

- Yeah, I mean, given that the hospitals there are kind of operating under those stresses now, I'd be curious to know if you might want to go a step farther than what we've already heard, and maybe trying to tell people to maybe reschedule travel plans just because I'm not sure how much that might impact people if they have to worry about the cancellation fees themselves. I mean, does it require maybe going a step farther to return to the way that you required testing for everyone to go into the state of Hawaii? I mean, what does that look like to you?

JOSH GREEN: It's a very complicated question. I do have to defer to the governor to make those ultimate decisions, just out of respect. Here are the scenarios. If you actually ask people to pretest again, which is the program, honestly, that I built and worked, we now have to wrestle with the fact that the CDC and the FDA have given us formal recommendations that people can travel safely if they're fully vaccinated. That creates some legal challenges because the federal government has set a standard that travel is safe if you're fully vaccinated.

I will say this. There is still a concern that people will catch and spread the Delta variant, even if they're fully vaccinated. We can get people care if they're here. The gov has asked us to have people travel only if it's emergent or necessary, so people should probably respect that. I'm also a realist, and I know people have made long-time plans to either reunite with family members or to get to Hawaii for a certain reason. So I don't want to be overprescriptive about that.

What we did do is we brought in 550 additional health care personnel, nurses-- that's critical care nurses-- and respiratory therapists so our hospitals can expand. We've plateaued in our hospital numbers in the last couple days, and that's been good news, but it's too early to make the final call on that. All of these things are complications, but I can give you updates. People can go to my website-- it's @ltgovjoshgreen-- or social media, and we'll give regular daily updates to let them know where we are as a state. But it's tough because I don't want anybody to miss out on their experience in paradise. On the other hand, give us four to six weeks to bring our hospital numbers down. By mid-October, I think we're going to be very good again.

- Yeah, and I mean, that's the big trade-off here, right? We had talked about travel coming back to Hawaii, and how big of a boost it was for the economy, but obviously, the health side of the equation rather important. And you mentioned breakthrough infections. You know, I was a similar case, vaccinated, still came through. We've been hearing more anecdotally about those.

But aside from just travel alone, maybe going a step further, I know you guys implemented more capacity limits in restaurants, bars, and gyms to 50% capacity, as well as, you know, shrinking large gatherings on Oahu. But I mean, do you see maybe more being done on that front? Maybe if you don't want to go back to testing travelers and all the travelers coming, but maybe more on the front of maybe reducing the incentives to go there if there's not much to do on the islands.

JOSH GREEN: Yes, that we have done. So right now, so people know what they're getting into if they come to Hawaii, it will be a little bit more difficult to get a restaurant reservation. No one's allowed to gather indoors with groups of larger than 10 or outdoors larger than 25. That means that a lot of the activities that people tend to do in Hawaii are severely restricted. You can't have those really big gatherings at all.

Also, hiking is great, being outdoors is great, going to the beach is great. All those things are available, but people should stay in close touch with me and my team because, if the cases surge further, ultimately we will have to make some of the tough calls as to whether or not there need to be more lockdowns and what have you. I will tell you this, we did double our testing. We went up from about 4,000 tests today to well over 8,000 tests today.

We're very committed to keeping schools open for our children. We call them [HAWAIIAN] here in Hawaiian. I have a 10-year-old actually right now in quarantine in our house because one of his classmates ended up being positive for COVID. So we're doing all the things you can do to prevent major spread, and we are also trying to be mindful of the law.

Again, I'll say this, I did create the Safe Travels program. I wouldn't mind if everyone went the extra mile if they're going to travel to Hawaii. Be vaccinated, and frankly, go get a test. I know it was onerous when we first put it out as a policy. Now, it just reeks of common sense that we make sure that we're not positive if we're traveling anywhere in America.

So be really smart. I'm trying to bring people together. I'm super incenting getting vaccinations. For every 100,000 people in Hawaii that we vaccinate, we are able to avoid 5,000 hospitalizations and 500 deaths. We've had the lowest mortality rate in the country for any state. We've had the lowest actual overall case count of any state in the country, but the surge is very real now.

- Yeah, no, I mean, look, you know, you've been on the show, I've applauded you for the way you handled it in the Safe Travels program. And having the lowest death rate, you know, for any state in the country deserves to be applauded. But it is interesting this year to hear you talking about it, again, as a doctor who sees this firsthand, and pairing it with some of the criticisms we've seen with some people on the island.

Marc Benioff was tweeting about a full list of kind of calling on you and the governor there to kind of go beyond, you know, it sounds like what you're talking about in testing, reinstating travel controls, increasing community testing, bringing back those testing requirements for travelers to the country, as you discussed. I mean, you know, it seems like a difficult thing to square all this away as an island that depends on a lot of that travel here, but specifically, as you mentioned, schools and children who haven't been vaccinated, Hawaii led the way in being safe. I mean, and now New Jersey is requiring it in schools for teachers and the like. I mean, do you see maybe Hawaii needing to go back to some of the smarter things that were implemented back then?

JOSH GREEN: Well, let me be very direct. Marc texts me a lot, and some of the things he recommends we absolutely are doing. Some of the things that he recommends, because he's not in government, are actually not legal and are impossible to do. I'm not a corporation with many billions of dollars. I'm running a state where people make real lifetime decisions. And every individual has to take their own personal responsibility into their own hands. It is not a corporation where I can top-down tell people what to do.

As to safety, I'm not really sure why there would be any criticism. With the lowest COVID rate for the total pandemic and lowest mortality rate, I think Mr. Benioff, Marc, should be applauding that. It's an imperfect world, and I'm actually trying to unite people. Even the question of mandates on vaccinations, I'm trying to bring some peace. As you're very aware, there have been people protesting in my house because I'm pushing so hard on mask mandates and encouraging people to get vaccinations. It's unfortunately resulted in hate speech toward me, and death threats. But I don't mind that if it brings more attention to the need to vaccinate. Ultimately, vaccinating is what will end this pandemic, science and the pandemic, and we will do our best.

- All right, Lieutenant Governor of Hawaii there, Dr. Josh Green, appreciate you coming back on here to chat. And we'll see what happens. Obviously, difficult choices there, particularly for an island so levered to tourism.