As President Joe Biden and federal health officials gave the OK for Americans who have been vaccinated to go maskless in most situations and discard social distancing, couching it as a watershed moment in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. David Ige signaled that the time to loosen such restrictions wasn’t right for Hawaii.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Thursday during a White House briefing that “anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in indoor and outdoor activities, large or small, without wearing a mask or physical distancing,”
“We have all longed for this moment when we can get back to some sense of normalcy,” she said.
But within hours Ige was holding his own news conference telling reporters that Hawaii’s mask mandate would continue for now and that a better point to stop wearing masks might be when the state reaches herd immunity, when enough of the population has protection from the virus to largely prevent its spread. That point is not exactly known, but scientists have pegged it somewhere above 70% in recent weeks.
We “do recognize for our fully vaccinated individuals it may be OK and healthy and safe to be out and about without a mask,” said Ige. “But clearly, for the benefit of our entire community, it’s better that we continue to wear masks until we get to the point where 70-80% of our community is fully vaccinated.”
Ige stressed that fewer than half of Hawaii residents are fully vaccinated, and it’s not possible to tell who has and hasn’t been immunized, in explaining his decision not to align Hawaii’s policies with CDC guidance. He said he especially wants to see more of the state’s children vaccinated.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration expanded the emergency use authorization for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to children 12 and older just this week. The vaccine was previously authorized only for children 16 and older.
About 42% of Hawaii’s residents are fully vaccinated, while 60% of the population has received at least one shot.
Ige said there wouldn’t be “any hard and fast cutoff” for when vaccinated people in Hawaii could drop their masks, but said he is working with the county mayors and state epidemiologist to incorporate vaccination rates into the tier systems, matrices set up to determine levels of restrictions on businesses and various activities.
Hawaii’s mask mandate requires everyone to wear a face covering when in public, whether it be indoors or outdoors. People outside exercising, or engaged in outdoor activities while alone or with members of their household, are exempt. However, everyone must still maintain at least a 6-foot distance from others.
Under the governor’s executive order, violating the mask mandate is a misdemeanor and can be punishable by up to one year in jail, a $5,000 fine or both, though there have been no reports of such severe consequences.
On Oahu there have been about 260 citations and arrests for violations of emergency orders since May 1, according to Michelle Yu, a spokeswoman for the Honolulu Police Department. She didn’t know how many of those, if any, involved masks. Since September, she said, there have been nearly 29,000 mask-related warnings.
Walensky, in announcing the new CDC guidance, said it was based on the latest studies showing that available vaccines protect against variants and have proved highly effective at preventing mild and severe illness, hospitalizations and deaths in real-world settings.
Sarah Kemble, Hawaii’s acting state epidemiologist, said in videotaped remarks provided to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that she was excited about the new CDC guidance.
“It indicates to me that there is now enough science and data behind this to say that masks may not be necessary once you’re fully vaccinated,” due to the low risk of contracting or transmitting the virus, she said. But Kemble said there are other considerations when translating that into local policy guidance, such as whether it’s possible to enforce making sure everyone who isn’t wearing a mask is actually vaccinated.
“The pile of gold is when we get enough of our total population vaccinated that we can all relax and that we as a community can reopen more fully and go back to the life we think of as normal,” she said.
This isn’t the first time that Ige has pushed back against federal guidance. More than a month ago, the CDC also recommended dropping testing and quarantine requirements for vaccinated travelers. While the state launched a vaccine passport system for residents traveling interisland this week, the governor hasn’t yet extended this to travelers coming from the mainland or abroad. On Thursday he reiterated his concerns that the state still did not have a way of verifying whether someone from another state or country had indeed been vaccinated.
“The CDC is not able to help us identify who is vaccinated and who is not, and that detail is left to the state and counties,” he said.
He also pushed back against political pressure, including from U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, to ease restrictions on outdoor youth sports. While sports like soccer have resumed, parents have complained that they haven’t been allowed to watch sports practices or games, even though they’re outdoors.
Schatz on Thursday wrote a letter to Ige urging him to reevaluate restrictions on the outdoor games as well as youth surf competitions and outrigger canoe races.
“We already allow people on beaches, we allow gatherings in bars, and we permit other outdoor activities, but we inexplicably do not allow parents and guardians to watch their own kids play sports outside in the sunshine and open air,” he wrote.
Schatz said that it’s “time that we begin to reward the people of Hawaii for being one of the most responsible states in the country in responding to COVID-19.”
Ige said he would evaluate whether it’s appropriate to have spectators at sporting events, but stressed that children have largely not been vaccinated and are still at risk from the virus.
Hawaii has consistently ranked the best in the country when it comes to the lowest number of COVID-related deaths per capita, faring far better than states like New Jersey and New York. Case counts have remained low, and Hawaii has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country.
Lt. Gov. Josh Green said Hawaii’s tough restrictions have aided the state’s success throughout the pandemic but that he believed it was time for Hawaii to mirror CDC guidelines.
He said it was better to have one national policy instead of the current patchwork of different restrictions, and that the new CDC policy on masks and social distancing was a safe one for Hawaii.
“I also think the most important reason to do it now is because the process of returning to some normalcy is important to our recovery. It’s very important,” he said. “And masks and their use are emblematic of trusting the vaccine and trusting that we are doing the right things. So I want to support the CDC’s policy.”