Gov. David Ige on Friday extended his emergency order restricting the size of social gatherings and requiring that masks be worn indoors, among other coronavirus– related restrictions, for another two months.
The governor cited the state’s continued high case counts and strains on the health care system as the rationale for maintaining the restrictions, while setting no metrics for deciding when the state may fully reopen.
“Today the number of cases has been trending lower, and the number of patients in our hospitals has continued to fall,” Ige said Friday during a news conference. “However, COVID continues to cause high rates of infection throughout our state.”
Ige has issued about two dozen emergency orders since the pandemic hit in early 2020. The latest proclamation expires Dec. 1.
Ige continues to ask that tourists delay traveling to Hawaii. But with case and hospitalization numbers trending downward, he said “we will be considering getting to a point where we will be inviting visitors back to the islands.”
Earlier this year the governor said that once 70% of Hawaii residents were fully vaccinated, he would drop all COVID-19-related restrictions. But the surge in cases this summer that resulted from the highly contagious delta variant upended that plan. Statewide, 68% of residents are now fully vaccinated, and 76% of residents have received at least one dose of a vaccine. Those figures include children under 12 who are not yet eligible for the vaccine. Among those eligible for the vaccine, about 90% of residents have received at least one shot.
Ige said there “is no simple metric” the state has been able to identify that would trigger dropping all restrictions.
“Hospital capacity and health care capacity is something that we have a concern (with). We will be looking at and making appropriate announcements as we move forward,” he said.
The governor said he was aware many states had dropped all restrictions, but that there continue to be high case counts.
Ige said he had tasked state Health Director Dr. Libby Char, chief medical officers and and other health care professionals with reviewing potential metrics from a public- health perspective.
“We have been discussing this for like four to six weeks at this point,” he said. “It is a complex question, and certainly the response I got back from the professionals is that they could not see a single metric that would be appropriate to … release restrictions. So we continue to work with the industry to try to see what are the indicators that would help us in guidance.”
Ige’s executive order extends the state’s Safe Travels program, including screening, vaccination and quarantine requirements for travelers, as well as the governor’s requirement that all state and county employees be vaccinated against COVID-19 or undergo weekly testing. It also clarifies that employees who choose the testing option pay for the tests.
Social gatherings are restricted to 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors. At restaurants, bars and other social establishments, customers must maintain 6-foot social distancing, wear masks except when eating or drinking, remain seated with their party and not mingle. The order also limits capacity at bars, restaurants, gyms and social establishments to 50%.
Average case counts and test positivity rates have continued to decline since the first week of September, when they peaked at about 910 new cases a day. The current seven-day average is now 301 new cases a day, with 3.8% of tests coming back positive for the virus.
The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 has also declined from a high of 473 on Sept. 7 to 182 as of Friday. There were 45 COVID-19 patients admitted to intensive care units statewide as of Friday, down from about 100 patients in early September.
Hospitals last month began rescheduling elective procedures that had been delayed due to the surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations, and hospital executives say prior strains on health care resources have eased.
“I’m glad to say that things have gotten quite a bit better,” Hilo Medical Center CEO Dan Brinkman told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s “Spotlight Hawaii” livestream program Friday. “We are only a little over completely full, versus way over completely full, which is certainly an improvement for us.”
Brinkman said that while the hospital is still busy, “I think we see some end in sight to this latest COVID surge.”
Maui Health System CEO Mike Rembis also said things had improved significantly at its Maui hospitals. On Friday he said there were just seven patients with COVID-19 hospitalized, down from more than 40 just a few weeks ago.
“I would say in the last week we finally have some respite,” said Rembis.