WAILEA — With Neighbor Island hotels eyeing resort bubbles as a way to weather the COVID-19 storm, some big brands on Maui are investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in pandemic safety protocol ahead of a possible reopening.
Officials with Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea and Wailea Beach Resort on Thursday unveiled plans to ensure their hotels offer safe places for staff, guests and the community at large. During an exclusive tour with state Sens. J. Kalani English and Gil Keith-Agaran, along with Mayor Michael Victorino, hotel general managers gave walk-throughs of procedures they’ve been refining over the months their sites have been closed.
“We want to build community trust and we want to do it from a place of being genuine,” said Angela Vento, Wailea Beach Resort general manager. “You have that commitment from us.”
Much of the hotels’ investments involve technology, such as RFID wristbands that would double as geofencing tracking — creating a virtual bubble that guests would not be able to leave — as well as QR codes that guests could scan with their smartphones and high-tech UV cleaning systems, according to the hotel leaders.
Maui’s big-brand hotels shut down with statewide public health mandates in March; many have not reopened amid the tourism industry’s uncertainty.
The hotels have been losing millions of dollars a month due to employee benefits, maintenance, utility needs, landscape and general upkeep, all while bringing in zero revenue, according to Rod Antone, Maui Hotel & Lodging Association executive director.
On the heels of a state news conference indicating the pretravel testing program that’s expected to bolster tourism may be delayed again, hotel leaders on the tour emphasized that they prioritize safety over speed when it comes to reopening. Four Seasons General Manager Marc Bromley said that “Maui seems to be, knock on wood, a little bit of a bubble.”
“We are not trying to interrupt that or force anything that would be remotely unsafe,” he said. “To us, it’s humanity and public health before business.”
With the move toward resort bubbles, bounded by geofencing technology, resorts could become among the safest places on the island, Antone said.
Visitors would sign off on tracking and other COVID-19 protocol, get pretested before their flight, pass temperature checks and health screening on hotel arrival and travel only within designated areas, Bromley said. Outsiders, whether guests from other hotels or Maui residents, would not be allowed onsite.
Also, employees would have daily temperature and health screenings, along with other COVID-19 safety protocol, hotel officials said. At Four Seasons, the employee cafeteria has tables set for physical distancing, food that is no longer self-serve and sanitizing stations.
Four Seasons is hiring a 24-hour onsite medical professional and designated a fifth-floor annex as a quarantine area for guests who may be ill.
“That is new, we didn’t have that before,” Bromley said. “It was a significant investment
. . . but it provides safety for our employees, our guests and to the community. If someone get sick, we can treat them, get them a rapid COVID-19 test, make sure we assess the symptoms and keep them away from the rest of employees and guests.”
Guest rooms have UV filters for all air handler units that run the spa, back of the house, banquet area and offices. Guest rooms have standalone ionizer units to purify the air, which was a $300,000 investment to install in all the rooms, Bromley said.
A UV sanitation box for the TV remote control — a frequently used, high-touch item — is located in each room as well. Guests can use it to sanitize cell phones or car keys within minutes, he added.
RFID wristbands will allow guests to enter rooms and other hotel areas. They would double as geofencing tracking to delineate bounds for the resort bubble and assist in contact tracing if exposure arises. Visitors would have to opt in to being tracked ahead of solidifying reservations, officials said.
Elevators would only allow four people at a time, and the buttons would be fitted with NanoSeptic covers that are self cleaning and would be replaced every 90 days.
“There is nothing we won’t do to make this as safe as possible,” Bromley said.
At Wailea Beach Resort, Vento said the establishment is employing QR code readers as “quick and easy ways” to access a menu at a restaurant and other hotel features, which would limit contact. Takeout or delivery would be available and include a washable bag that carries melamine plates, rolled cutlery, acrylic and glassware.
Luau indoor and outdoor seating would comply with county gathering limits, which currently allow for no more than 10 people. Advance registration would book one party per table, arrival times would be staggered and a “sanitation ambassador” would be designated for each event to oversee cleaning and physical distancing measures.
Poolside seating with physically distanced chairs is reserved ahead of time with an app.
Also, HEPA/ULTA filtration in air units and vacuums, along with electrostatic spraying and UV light disinfection, will be employed throughout the hotel.
While RFID bracelets are not out of the question, Vento said her brand is mulling a phone app and other ideas for geofencing tracking.
Chris Tatum, Hawaii Tourism Authority president and CEO, told The Maui News on Friday that his agency has been discussing resort bubbles, particularly with Neighbor Islands. He added that HTA is supportive of plans agreed on by government and industry officials.
Tatum said resort bubbles and geofencing would be short-term measures; over the long term “people don’t come here to stay at a resort.”
“This is a unique situation,” he said.
Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami has also been at the forefront of resort bubble discussions.
Kauai, which has the fewest COVID-19 numbers in the state with 53, is looking into a plan that would allow interested resort passengers to spend their quarantine on property at full-service resorts, which would have programs, activities and policies in place to provide a “full vacation experience,” Kawakami told The Maui News via email Friday.
“We are testing different technologies that will help manage visitors in those resorts, to ensure guests stay on property. Some involve specialized electronic monitors, a technology called geofencing, which would send immediate notifications to authorities if visitors leave the bubble of the resort property,” he said. “One of the most promising vendors has a disposable wrist device that looks like a watch, which pairs with a cellphone, allowing a compliance team to monitor the activities of those in quarantine or in a resort bubble.”
Gov. David Ige on Thursday indicated he may again delay the pretravel testing plan — which was supposed to launch Sept. 1 — due to the rise in COVID-19 numbers and may employ more restrictions “if things do not get better.”
Still, University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization research fellow Sumner La Croix said last week that Neighbor Islands with lower case loads could seek to reopen to tourism ahead of Oahu, which has seen a triple-digit surge in cases over recent weeks.
During a news conference Friday afternoon, Victorino lauded resort bubble efforts on Maui, speculating that some resorts could be two to five weeks away from possibly reopening.
“I’m just saying what I believe could happen, but realistically I don’t think anything is going to change before the middle of September,” he said.
The mayor added that based on what’s been happening lately, “I don’t think anybody will be ready for trans-Pacific bubbles or travel by Sept. 1.”
Kauai is in a better position than Maui to reopen to tourism, according to Victorino.
“We’re working on it,” Victorino said at the end of Thursday’s tour. “(Kauai is) smaller; they seem to want to be quicker to open up. I’m still at the point where, ‘Yeah, you have only one or two cases a week.’ We still have numbers. So I’m moving and it has to be methodical and systematic. It’s worked so far and that’s why I want to keep it that way. We will see how this goes.”
* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.