State mask mandate to end March 25 with emergency rules
Hawaii would be the last state to drop its indoor masking rules
Hawaii will end its indoor mask requirement on March 25, the same day it plans to lift key COVID-19 emergency rules that include proof of vaccination or testing for government employees and domestic travelers.
“Right now hospitalizations are trending down, case counts are falling and we are better at treating people who are infected with the virus,” Gov. David Ige said during a news conference to announce the change on Tuesday. “Booster shots are saving lives and the CDC rates the state’s COVID-19 community level as ‘low’ all across the state.
“This is all promising,” Ige added. “But we’ve seen previous progress wiped out by a delta or omicron variant. So I want to be very clear — I will be ready to reinstitute the mask policy if COVID cases should surge.”
Last week, Ige announced that all of the state’s emergency measures except for the indoor mask mandate would expire March 25. This includes the requirement that government workers get vaccinated or tested regularly, as well as the Safe Travels Program, which requires proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test. The requirements will stay in place for international travelers.
Amid questions over why Hawaii would remain the last state with an indoor mask mandate, Ige and other officials had cited the effectiveness of masks as well as Hawaii’s unique situation as the only state responsible for its jail and hospital facilities.
“We do believe that it makes sense to be thoughtful as we make adjustments to the restrictions,” Ige said Tuesday in explaining why the state wasn’t dropping the mask rules right away. “We do believe with the Safe Travels expiring, we did see a lot of dropping of restrictions in the counties, and certainly we want to make sure that as the counties are dropping restrictions that it doesn’t trigger a surge in the case counts or in hospitalizations all across the state. So we do believe that it’s prudent to let the emergency proclamation proclamation run its course.”
Health Department Director Dr. Elizabeth Char said that “we have been tracking the data and studying trends for weeks and support this move.”
“Masks are still an important tool in preventing transmission of COVID-19,” Char said. “We strongly recommend people over age 65, people with compromised immune systems, people who aren’t vaccinated and those who care for people at risk of severe illness still wear masks indoors. This is especially important in crowded settings.”
Settings where masks are still recommended indoors include schools, hospitals and health care facilities, long-term care facilities, shelters, correctional facilities and other congregate living settings.
State Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble said the state is still recommending masks in the classroom for the time being. Those exposed to a known positive case at school will no longer have to quarantine as long as they’re not symptomatic or sick, she added.
“We want to ensure that students come back to a safe environment after spring break,” Kemble said. “Maintaining indoor masking in schools for the time being is important for keeping our schools open and ensuring in-person learning.”
The state Department of Education announced Tuesday that it would make outdoor masking at its public school campuses and DOE facilities optional for students, faculty and staff effective today. Indoor masking will continue to be required.
“It’s encouraging to see our indicators trending in the right direction to allow us to make this change,” Interim Superintendent Keith Hayashi said in a news release Tuesday. “We’re seeing COVID case counts at our public schools continue to decline for the seventh straight week and weekly rates are down 98 percent from January’s omicron surge peak.”
Hayashi told complex area superintendents and principals in a memo on Tuesday that individuals should make their own decision on whether to mask or not when outdoors “based on whether they are at high risk for severe disease and other unique needs.”
The CDC’s latest guidance for K-12 schools recommends outdoor masking not be required when community levels are low to moderate, and all counties in Hawaii are currently designated as “low,” the DOE said.
Char said that the state is not focused on “any single number” but that it continues to watch the trends both locally as well as on the Mainland and globally. If the state sees a big spike in cases or hospitals filling up again, or if the CDC ups Hawaii’s risk level, “that would spur us to make recommendations that we reinstate the mask mandate,” she said.
* Colleen Uechi can be reached at email@example.com.