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Hope high for announcement on loosening Hawaii COVID-19 restrictions

CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                In recent weeks the vaccinated percentage of Hawaii’s population has increased. The state’s vaccination rate — now 69% — is outpacing the nationwide rate, which currently sits at about 56%. Above, Cameron Kaneshiro received a COVID-19 shot Thursday from nurse Sadaf Seyf at the Hawaii Pacific Health vaccination clinic at the Hawaii Theatre.
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CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM

In recent weeks the vaccinated percentage of Hawaii’s population has increased. The state’s vaccination rate — now 69% — is outpacing the nationwide rate, which currently sits at about 56%. Above, Cameron Kaneshiro received a COVID-19 shot Thursday from nurse Sadaf Seyf at the Hawaii Pacific Health vaccination clinic at the Hawaii Theatre.

CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                State Department of Health officials reported eight new coronavirus- related deaths and 304 new confirmed and probable infections statewide Thursday. Above, Mark Merriam receives a coronavirus dose from nurse Molly Hughey at the Hawaii Pacific Health vaccination clinic at the Hawaii Theatre.
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CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM

State Department of Health officials reported eight new coronavirus- related deaths and 304 new confirmed and probable infections statewide Thursday. Above, Mark Merriam receives a coronavirus dose from nurse Molly Hughey at the Hawaii Pacific Health vaccination clinic at the Hawaii Theatre.

CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                In recent weeks the vaccinated percentage of Hawaii’s population has increased. The state’s vaccination rate — now 69% — is outpacing the nationwide rate, which currently sits at about 56%. Above, Cameron Kaneshiro received a COVID-19 shot Thursday from nurse Sadaf Seyf at the Hawaii Pacific Health vaccination clinic at the Hawaii Theatre.
CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                State Department of Health officials reported eight new coronavirus- related deaths and 304 new confirmed and probable infections statewide Thursday. Above, Mark Merriam receives a coronavirus dose from nurse Molly Hughey at the Hawaii Pacific Health vaccination clinic at the Hawaii Theatre.

Expectations are high that a change in COVID-19 restrictions will be announced today after Mayor Rick Blangiardi told a crowd of event planners at Honolulu Hale on Thursday, “I think tomorrow you’ll be pleased.”

“We’re almost there, OK?” Blangiardi said. “There’s a couple of things going on,” he said, adding that a proposed loosening of restrictions could take effect Wednesday.

Gov. David Ige also raised hopes of easing restrictions by posting on his Facebook account Thursday that he was “optimistic” that he can announce lifting some unspecified coronavirus-related restrictions.

“Now that we’re seeing a lower number of cases and hospitalized patients, I’m optimistic that by the end of this week we can announce that we will begin lifting some of those restrictions, while keeping the health and safety of loved ones a top priority,” Ige wrote. “I know many of you are ready to get back to normal, and we’re taking steps to get there. Mahalo for your hard work, patience and kuleana.”

Ige provided no timetable. And Blangiardi, who last month imposed city-only Safe Access O‘ahu mandates, said, “I don’t want to get out in front of the governor.” But Blangiardi hinted at some changes.

“You have my word,” Blangiardi said. “We’re going to make announcements on weddings. We’re going to make other announcements. … I want to expand the outdoor events and the indoor events in good numbers to begin with, only to get better from there.”

Mufi Hannemann, president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association, said any initial easing of state or city restrictions would be welcomed, even if they only begin with allowing fans into University of Hawaii sporting events. The next UH home football game is slated for Oct. 23 against New Mexico State.

Hannemann has been organizing discussions between Ige and business industry leaders in regard to proposed amendments to the governor’s call in August for tourists to stay away through October. An effort is underway to signal that Hawaii is making strides in battling the virus, which could spur bookings and visitor arrivals for the the rest of the year, including the holiday season.

“I think something will happen (today), even if it’s to announce the opening of games,” Hannemann said. “I’m a big UH fan and would like to see that open.” However, he added that “our big ask” is for Ige to announce “when we can reopen, because it’s critical for folks who may want to come in November and December. And January and February are important, too.”

A letter to Ige authored by business leaders, issued last week, cited economic devastation tied to the recent surge of the highly contagious delta variant — with business operations ranging from airlines to merchants and restaurants hard-hit.

Sherry Menor-McNamara, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in a statement, “Governor Ige’s plan to lift some restrictions as a result of the decreasing COVID case counts is critical to the survival of small and local businesses, which have already endured many hardships.”

She continued, “We appreciate the government’s public-safety efforts and as we move forward, there needs to be a common sense balance between community health and economic stability. Our citizens have made considerable sacrifices, so let’s continue to find ways to come up with workable solutions to prevent future restrictions.”

The letter from business leaders, including Menor- McNamara, pointed to encouraging hospitalization and vaccination data, including that the statewide vaccination rate — now 69% — is outpacing the nationwide rate, which currently sits at about 56%.

The letter concluded that Hawaii is nearing the one-year point marking trans-Pacific travel’s reopening — following seven months of tourism lockdown. It noted that the governor has a “unique opportunity to bring this entire experience full circle” by announcing on or before Oct. 15 — the 2020 launch date for the Safe Travels program — that travelers can “confidently return to our state,” beginning Nov. 1.

Given that COVID-19 remains a public health threat, Hannemann emphasized that while the business community favors easing restrictions, it also supports requirements for showing proof of vaccination, negative test results, maintaining crowd and physical distancing limits and following mask mandates.

In another letter — one addressed to Ige and state health officials, and issued Wednesday — Hilton Rae­thel, president and CEO of the Healthcare Association of Hawaii, supported a move toward easing some restrictions.

Noting that COVID-19 cases have been decreasing in recent weeks, and the vaccinated percentage of the population has been increasing, Raethel cited data showing that as of Wednesday:

>> Hawaii’s “positivity rate” was 3.3, a 61% decrease from an Aug. 27 peak of 8.4.

>> The seven-day average in the number of new cases was 229, a 74% drop from the peak of 882 in early September.

>> The 14-day average in new cases was 3,883, a 66% decrease from the early- September peak of 11,331.

>> The number of COVID-19-positive hospitalized patients was 145, a 67% decrease from the peak of 436 on Sept. 13.

>> Some 80.8% of Hawaii residents eligible for vaccination were fully vaccinated, and 90.3% of the eligible population had initiated the process.

“Hospital leadership continues to strongly support vaccination and the wearing of masks indoors, physical distancing and hand-washing, as well as adequate COVID testing, and careful monitoring of cases to ensure continued recovery from the most recent surge of COVID-19,” Raethel wrote.

“There is no dispute that the recent surge stretched and stressed Hawaii’s healthcare resources, both acute care and post-acute care providers. That stress has now been relieved, and Hawaii hospital leadership believes that it is now time for state leaders to take steps to open up for business.”

On Thursday state Department of Health officials reported eight new coronavirus-related deaths and 304 new confirmed and probable infections statewide, bringing the state’s totals since the start of the pandemic to 826 fatalities and 80,886 cases.

Five of the latest deaths were on Oahu, and three were on Hawaii island. Thursday’s new confirmed and probable infection count by island included 166 new cases on Oahu, 30 on Maui, 54 on Hawaii island, 28 on Kauai and 26 Hawaii residents diagnosed outside the state.

Health officials counted 7,540 new COVID-19 test results, for a 4.03% statewide positivity rate. The state’s seven-day average positivity rate was 3.2%, according to the Hawaii COVID-19 Data dashboard.

Raethel told the Star- Advertiser that the Healthcare Association of Hawaii especially supports easing limits on outdoor gatherings, “with appropriate precautions.”

“Being outdoors is part of Hawaii life,” he said, with gatherings ranging from weddings and funerals to sporting events — and attendance at sporting events, “whether it’s high school, college or even if there’s indoor volleyball.” Raethel added, “We’re in a much, much better place than we were just three weeks ago.”

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Staff writer Dave Reardon contributed to this report.

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