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Hawaii News

Churches are exempt from Hawaii’s new COVID-19 restrictions

In late July, the Hawaii Department of Health warned that places of worship continued to be among the settings where clusters of COVID-19 cases were erupting, along with restaurants, lodging and social gatherings. A combination of unvaccinated people; lack of indoor mask wearing, in defiance of the governor’s mask mandate; and lengthy socializing with food and drink were upping the risks at churches and other religious establishments, according to Health Department cluster reports.

But when Gov. David Ige announced on Tuesday that he was immediately imposing stiff limits on the number of people that can occupy social establishments, reimposing social distancing requirements and prohibiting mingling in an attempt to rein in soaring COVID-19 case counts, he exempted churches. While the governor initially said during a news conference that the restrictions pertained to “all indoor activities,” including churches, the governor’s office later said he misspoke.

“Churches are not included in these latest restrictions because the counties already have specific rules for churches, which each have their own unique needs,” Jodi Leong, a spokeswoman for the governor, said by email on Wednesday. “The governor didn’t feel there was one common way to restrict all churches. However, the counties can still take action on any church restrictions.”

However, a review of county regulations aimed at protecting the public from the spread of COVID-19 found few restrictions on places of worship.

The City and County of Honolulu’s current tier system lists no restrictions on the number of people that can gather indoors for spiritual services.

In Hawaii County “places of worship have had the ability to operate up to whatever capacity they could safely accommodate individuals using proper COVID-19 mitigation protocols,” Cyrus Johnasen, a county spokesman, said by email.

“The uptick in cases is undoubtedly concerning. Since taking office, our administration has been working diligently with various places of worship to ensure compliance and the ability to keep our residents safe,” Johnasen said by email. “Based on the governor’s guidance, we will continue to work with our places of worship to lower the risk of spread while allowing for their constitutional rights to worship.”

Maui County didn’t respond to an inquiry about COVID-19 regulations for places of worship, while on Kauai, churches are subject to a 75% capacity limit, said Sarah Blane, chief of staff for Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami. This was the case for all businesses prior to the governor’s executive order.

None of the county mayors responded to questions about whether there should be stricter limits on places of worship given the outbreaks in churches that have persisted throughout the pandemic. Some churches have even openly defied government safety mandates.

In March, state health officials took the unusual step of publicly urging King’s Cathedral in Kahului to cancel all upcoming in-person events and offer virtual services until a growing cluster of COVID-19 cases was contained.

Health officials had previously urged the church to enact containment measures including isolation, quarantine, and a switch to virtual services, along with other prevention measures, to contain the spread. But officials later found further transmission of the virus as the church continued to host in-person services, a youth conference and other gatherings. The outbreak on Maui was linked to at least 77 cases.

Earlier this month, state health officials issued a public warning that anyone who participated in Lihue Missionary Church youth excursions on July 25 and 31 might have been exposed to COVID-19. The Health Department typically doesn’t disclose specific infection locations, but in this case, church leaders were not cooperating with contact tracing efforts, according to state officials, prompting the public warning.

Health Department officials said they were particularly concerned about people who rode in a van during the excursion because they were considered close contacts of confirmed cases and subject to quarantine and daily monitoring.

Leaders at one Oahu church, Unified … Hawaii, appear to have covered up a large cluster of COVID-19 infections among their congregation that emerged after an Easter Sunday service as they spread misinformation and conspiracy theories about the dangers of the vaccine. One member of the congregation who was infected died.

Health Department cluster reports show that state officials have been continuously investigating clusters at places of worship for the past two months, though it’s not clear how many cases have been associated with those outbreaks because the numbers can be repeated throughout several reports and the locations aren’t identified.

Hawaii has seen an alarming rise in case counts as the highly-contagious delta variant spreads throughout the islands, causing hospital officials to worry about their ability to provide adequate care, with the number or patients expected to increase significantly in the coming weeks.

The state’s seven-day daily average of new cases has climbed to 523, double the previous record set since the start of the pandemic.

Hawaii Department of Health officials on Wednesday reported two new coronavirus-related deaths and 472 new confirmed and probable infections statewide, bringing the state’s totals since the start of the pandemic to 545 deaths and 47,848 cases.

Wednesday’s COVID-19 case report is a partial count because the state’s electronic laboratory reporting system was interrupted for about 20 hours on Monday and Tuesday, officials said. The state says its reporting system is back online and the Department of Health anticipates delayed test results to be reported in case counts Thursday and Friday.

Health officials said Hawaii’s two most recent COVID-19 related deaths were both female Oahu residents — one in her 40s and the other in her 80s. Both were hospitalized with underlying health conditions.

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