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Pressure builds for stronger Hawaii mask mandate

The issue of whether masks are mandatory across the islands arose once again Monday with key state legislators pressing Gov. David Ige to emphatically state that wearing masks is required statewide to help slow the rising spread of COVID-19 and prevent a third surge of cases.

House Speaker Scott Saiki, co-chairman of the House Select Committee on COVID- 19 Economic and Financial Preparedness, told committee members Monday that he and state Senate President Ron Kouchi have asked Ige to specify through an emergency proclamation that wearing masks is mandatory across all islands and that enforcement is up to each county.

Ige’s office said in an email to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that the governor’s proclamations already make it clear that “A statewide mandate on masks already exists. … With the governor’s approval, each county has issued its own specific guidelines unique to its community with minor variations. Violations are misdemeanors, and counties handle the enforcement.”

Ige’s 13th and 14th emergency proclamations on COVID-19 — his most recent — both include a chart that says “wash, mask, and distance” are among “recommended Safe Practices.”

But members of the House COVID-19 committee Monday said clearer language is needed to require everyone to wear masks.

Mufi Hannemann, chief executive officer and president of the Hawai‘i Lodging & Tourism Association, told Saiki that the visitor industry would like the Legislature to convene a special session to draft a bill requiring mandatory mask wearing or take up the issue during the upcoming regular session.

“The need for more strengthened rules and requirements and even a law to get people to comply with wearing a mask is a no-brainer for us,” Hanne-mann said.

He later said that as he walks around Waikiki every day, “there’s more local people not wearing masks than the tourists or the travelers, so that continues to be a major concern.”

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell is calling for a federal mask mandate in addition to a statewide mandate.

“I do think in the one area where it would be very helpful is a statewide mandate for mask wearing,” Caldwell said. “Not only that, I think there should be a federal mandate. I think we need that on a federal level and on a state level that makes it clear to everyone in our country and in the state of Hawaii, you should be wearing your face coverings everywhere except where it’s safe not to do so. It’s the best thing short of a vaccine. We need it now. We should’ve had it a long time ago.”

“I know that people drive down Kalakaua (Avenue), local folks, they see visitors not wearing masks and, under our mask mandate, you’re mandated to wear masks everywhere including outside if you’re closer than 6 feet of someone and they’re not part of your family unit. But I can see where it creates certain resentment. We are trying to work on a statewide county unified mask mandate that would be adopted by the state.”

Lt. Gov. Josh Green told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Sunday that he would like the Legislature to mandate the wearing of masks.

But Saiki told Hanne-mann on Monday that it would be “unwieldy” for lawmakers to require masks statewide through a bill — and simpler for Ige to order the requirement through a supplemental emergency proclamation, which Ige’s office said he has already done.

“All that the proclamation has to say clearly and simply is, No. 1, that masks must be worn throughout the state and, No. 2, that the counties are responsible for enforcement of the mask order. That’s all the proclamation needs to say,” Saiki said.

University of Washington researchers are tracking Hawaii’s COVID-19 cases and connecting the numbers to wearing masks, said Carl Bonham, executive director of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization and a member of the House committee.

If Hawaii can reach 95% compliance in mask use, the University of Washington predicts that Hawaii can “completely avoid the surge that we saw last summer,” Bonham told the House committee. “Without universal mask wearing, their forecast is for us to surpass that (summer surge). … Right now the estimate is that we’re at 73% — and that’s down from where we were during the last surge. We were up around 80%.”

Bonham earlier told the committee that Oahu is on pace to revert to Tier 1 COVID-19 restrictions instead of advancing to the less restrictive Tier 3 status.

Oahu moved to Tier 2 on Oct. 22, and must stay in Tier 2 for four weeks. To move to Tier 3, Oahu must maintain a seven-day average case count of 49 or fewer cases and a seven- day average positivity rate of 2.49% or lower for two consecutive Wednesdays. The city takes a “Weekly Assessment” on Wednesday. If the seven-day average of new cases is below 50 on the last two Wednesdays of this month, Nov. 18 and 25, the county could move to Tier 3 on Thanksgiving Day.

That’s not looking likely since Oahu saw triple-digit case counts and a seven- day average of 90 cases as of Sunday.

“We grew cases,” Bonham said. “If that trend continues for two more weeks, we’ll be back in Tier 1.”

On Monday state officials reported 53 new cases on Oahu.

During the first eight days of November, an average of 5,000 visitors arrived each day. They represented the largest numbers since tourists were allowed to travel beginning Oct. 15 without a 14-day quarantine as long as they tested negative for COVID-19 72 hours before boarding a flight.

“What really is going to matter is keeping cases under control here and on the mainland, and the mainland isn’t looking so well,” Bonham said.

Eric Takahata, managing director of Hawaii Tourism Japan, said Oahu is expected to see 630,000 Japanese visitors in 2021: 10% of the 2019 levels in the first quarter, 25% of 2019 levels in the second quarter and 60% of 2019 levels in the third and fourth quarters.

Japanese visitors currently have to undergo a 14-day quarantine once they return home from Oahu, he said.

They can currently undergo preflight testing through 21 “trusted testing partners,” and Takahata said two more are expected to be announced this week.

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