After many states closed all but essential businesses beginning in mid-March due to the onset of the coronavirus outbreak, some began reopening those in the non-essential bracket as early as late April — albeit with social distancing, various mask-wearing requirements and capacity restrictions.
Given that the pandemic, far from having tapered, is still raging across the nation, a prevailing sentiment is that reopenings went too far, too fast. Hawaii continues to rank among states with the lowest per-capita count of cases while taking steps to reopen public life. But a recent surge suggests that — like many other states — we’re due for a step back.
Within the last week, Hawaii has seen three days of record highs in new cases reported. And over a just-completed span of 30 days there were nearly 840 cases — as many as in the five previous months combined, according to Lt. Gov. Josh Green. In response, Green and Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell are rightly advising a scaling back of indoor and outdoor social gatherings to a 10-person limit; Caldwell also wants to require the wearing of facial coverings indoors and outdoors on Oahu.
Also, Caldwell is asking Gov. David Ige for permission to shut down all Oahu bars for three weeks to allow time to assess how they can be regulated to make operations less vulnerable to COVID-19’s community spread. In addition, on Monday, the mayor was eyeing a move to limit or ban exercise groups in gyms.
Although bars and gyms are hardly the only venues in which infection is possible, both have proved problematic — especially bars. So far, the city has mandated masks while working out in gyms and restricted alcohol sales in bars to midnight, while allowing liquor inspectors to shut down bars violating safety guidelines. But those measures may not be sufficiently effective.
State health officials are now searching for people who may have been exposed to the virus at two Honolulu bars. There are at least five cases associated with the establishments, and as many as seven other positive cases potentially linked. Earlier this month, officials reported a cluster of 20 cases at two undisclosed Oahu gyms.
Also, officials also found at least 36 cases involving a cluster associated with funeral events.
While the gym businesses remained undisclosed because officials could tap membership or class roster information to conduct contact tracing, the bars produced less reliable information, justifying the state’s opting for public identification in the interest of public health.
Honolulu bars were shuttered for about three months before reopening on June 19.
To their credit, many of these businesses have already gone above and beyond to comply with contagion-related guidelines. One addition could help facilitate contact tracing, which is key to preventing a wildfire spread of the virus: Require arriving patrons to sign in and provide contact information.
To avoid penalizing responsible businesses — another closure, even for three weeks, could permanently close scores of already struggling bars and brewpubs — the city should work in tandem with the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii, other small business advocates and health officials to find ways to safely forge forward while avoiding a sweeping shutdown. In the interest of balancing economic health with public health, Caldwell should first consider expanding COVID-19 guidelines pertaining to businesses in which patron visits typically last much longer than 15 minutes.
In addition to bars, on June 19 Honolulu Hale gave the green light to reopen gyms and theaters — and allowed up to 50 people for indoor events and 100 people for outdoor events. But that was a different time, under different circumstances. And while returning to a 10-person limit for social gatherings would be difficult, it’s a sensible step in response to the dramatic rise in cases.