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Breath of fresh air: Mask rule lifted outdoors

Governor points to declining COVID-19 cases in decision

A discarded face mask rests in a Kuau parking lot in March. Gov. David Ige announced Tuesday that mask rules would be lifted outdoors for both vaccinated and unvaccinated people statewide. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

Citing “significant progress” in declining COVID-19 cases and hospitalized patients, Gov. David Ige lifted the mask mandate outdoors for vaccinated and unvaccinated people statewide.

“You will not be required to wear a mask while outside,” Ige said during a news conference Tuesday. “However, we do strongly encourage everyone when they are outside in large groups to continue to wear a mask. The mask mandate is not changing indoors. The virus is still circulating in our community, and unvaccinated people are particularly at risk.”

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced on May 13 that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear a mask or physically distance in any setting — unless required by local law — Hawaii held back over concerns with its vaccination rates and the challenges of enforcement.

“At the time that the CDC came out with their guidance, we were seeing rising case counts,” state Department of Health Director Dr. Libby Char said during the news conference. “We were able to watch our case numbers and trends and ascertain whether or not there would be a spike, and thankfully there was not. Our numbers are fairly stable now. We’re seeing evidence of the benefits of vaccination.”

Average daily cases and hospitalizations have declined while vaccination rates have gone up, Lt. Gov. Josh Green said. During the week of April 1, Hawaii had 98.1 average daily cases and 1,223 total active cases, with a total of 634,442 vaccine doses administered. As of Tuesday, Hawaii was averaging 53 daily cases and had 932 active cases, with 1,560,435 doses administered.

Vacationing Bay Area software engineer Alexander Hu soaks in the sun along the shoreline at Waipuilani Park in Kihei Tuesday afternoon. “I’m letting the ocean take away my sorrows,” he said. “I’m sort of finding zen in the ocean.” He said he was happy to hear Hawaii’s mask rules were being loosened for outdoors. “The mask rules in California change by the day,” he said.

“That is why the governor is able to ratchet back some of the restrictions,” Green said.

He also pointed out that Hawaii is down to 38 COVID-19 hospitalizations after surpassing 300 in late August. Green said that those hospitalized for the virus tend to be younger people and not as critically ill now that most kupuna across the state have been vaccinated.

On Tuesday, the Health Department reported 23 confirmed and probable cases — including one on Molokai and none on Maui and Lanai. Maui County has been recording seven cases a day on a seven-day rolling average with a positivity rate of 1 percent.

“It really is a community effort and I want to thank everyone in the community here in Maui County that has worked extremely hard to make this come to pass, that we are now moving into other stages of normalcy,” Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino said of the mask rule changes.

Victorino, who appeared at the governor’s news conference along with the three other county mayors, said the rules have “created division in our community, and we’ve seen an example of this this past weekend,” alluding to news reports of a Maui man who said he got into an altercation after telling others to wear their masks.

Kihei’s Charlene Echeverri puts away a shot at the net in front of double partner Colleen Welty of Pukalani Tuesday afternoon at Waipuilani Park. Echeverri said she supports Gov. David Ige’s announcement Tuesday about outdoor mask use, but she is not ready to give up on them completely. “I’m glad they relaxed it for outdoors, but I think it is still needed in confined places until the percentage of vaccinations is higher,” Echeverri said.

“I believe we are really at a point now where with vaccinations . . . we can continue to move forward and open more of the restrictions and make Maui and the state of Hawaii a more common, and what I call, enthusiastic community that we used to be, be able to share hugs and share aloha the way we were so used to,” he said.

People must still don masks when going from outdoor to indoor settings. Shoppers, for example, could go maskless at open-air malls but must put on face coverings once they walk into a store. Someone sitting at a bus stop could wait without a mask but would have to wear one on the bus.

When asked when the state might lift the indoor mask rules, Char said that “it depends.”

“What we’re really watching is the rate of vaccine,” Char said. “For those in our state, we want to make sure that we have a good majority that’s vaccinated. We’re going to watch and see whether or not we’re going to see an influx of more virulent COVID. So it depends on how the pandemic unfolds in the next several weeks, but the main thing is that we keep our community safe.”

She estimated that the state’s targeted herd immunity rate would be in the 70- to 80-percent range but explained that it would depend on the level of variants in the community and how contagious they are.

On Tuesday, the governor also announced that starting June 1, the state will lift the suspension on ocean sports competitions, including surfing, canoe paddling and swimming, amongst other activities.

“The state will resume issuing permits for ocean activities and the counties will be able to issue permits for the use of their parks,” Ige said. “Permits will be issued provided that public health and safety protocols are followed to protect our communities, contestants and spectators.”

Ige also said that the state aims to expand its 10-day quarantine exemption next month for trans-Pacific travelers who have been fully vaccinated in Hawaii. Intercounty travelers who have been fully vaccinated in Hawaii have been able to bypass pre-travel testing and quarantine since May 11. According to Green, 23,528 people have used their vaccine card to get the exemption for intercounty travel, which has saved taxpayers about $2.5 million because these travelers did not have to be tested.

The state is working with third-party providers to help verify vaccinations in other states and eventually extend the exemption to out-of-state trans-Pacific travelers later in the summer, Ige said.

Since May 4, Maui County has been requiring post-arrival tests for all trans-Pacific travelers coming into the Kahului Airport but will wrap up the program on June 4 if positivity rates remain low, Victorino said.

As of Monday, 61,848 travelers had been tested upon arrival, with 25 positive antigen test results, the county said. Two of these came out positive during confirmatory testing.

Victorino said the program is costing the county about $1.7 million and has provided “very important information that the variants that are out there are not being brought in by outside sources, that some of it may already exist, and we need to be more mindful of community spread.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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