Gov. David Ige is holding strong to his target of fully vaccinating 70% of Hawaii residents before dropping the majority of the state’s COVID-related safety restrictions, including indoor mask mandates, despite growing frustration among some businesses and residents who say the restrictions have become overly burdensome as the incidence of serious illness and death from COVID remains low and vaccines readily available.
Ige plans to extend his emergency proclamation suspending various laws and mandating safety protocols, which is set to expire Aug. 6. He also said he will maintain the state’s indoor mask mandate, despite guidance issued a month ago by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that said vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks in the vast majority of settings.
“We believe 70% is a good target for us,” Ige told the Star-Advertiser’s Spotlight Hawaii on Monday. “We are making good progress.”
The delta variant, which studies have shown to be more contagious and could cause more serious illness, has concerned top health officials who say that as it takes hold the islands could see an uptick in COVID cases among the unvaccinated. Ige said he doesn’t want to have to claw back the state’s reopening if cases do spike.
“I know that once we move forward, I don’t want to be in a position to have to step back,” he said. “So I’m committed to maintaining the mask mandate for now as we see continued circulation of the virus in our community.”
Ige said that the pace of vaccinations “has slowed a little,” but he expects the state could reach the 70% threshold in early September.
Currently, 58.6% of Hawaii residents are fully vaccinated. But the pace of vaccinations has fallen 75% since early May, according to Department of Health figures, and other state officials have said reaching 70% could be difficult. The country isn’t expected to reach that target, based on current trends, until sometime next year.
Ige on Monday also said he was committed to maintaining the mask mandate in public schools, including high schools where students have been eligible to receive the vaccine since the spring.
“The Department of Health really believes wearing a mask is one of the most effective ways to mitigate the spread of COVID,” said Ige in emailed responses to questions. “So the mask mandate will remain part of the mitigation policies and procedures for our schools for the time being, and will be adjusted as the situation changes.”
Ige didn’t say how long he expects schools to require masks, but said “vaccination numbers, COVID case counts and science” will factor into the decision.
Health officials have stressed that the COVID vaccine is highly effective at preventing serious illness and death, as well as preventing the virus from spreading. Some critics have said that the state’s resistance to loosening restrictions, such as mask mandates for people who are vaccinated, could undermine that message.
Lt. Gov. Josh Green, who at times has been at odds with Ige’s policies and has pushed for a quicker easing of restrictions, said the state should lower the target, perhaps to 65% of the population given that another 5% of the community already could have a degree of immunity because they contracted the virus.
“I think people are going to freak out if we have to wait another three months before we get rid of some of these mask mandates and other rules,” he told Hawaii News Now last week. At some point, he said, it didn’t make sense to “hold everyone else hostage” because a certain segment of the community refuses the vaccine.
Business leaders reacted with frustration Monday to Ige’s comments, noting that Hawaii is the only state that hasn’t dropped the majority of restrictions, including indoor mask mandates.
Ryan Tanaka, co-owner of Giovanni Pastrami, a Waikiki sports bar, and a board member of the Hawaii Restaurant Association, said the mask mandate is particularly difficult for his staff, many of whom are working double the hours because of employee shortages.
“Wearing masks all day long is extremely tough for them,” he said.
Tanaka said it’s also affecting the economic recovery of restaurants, which have been hit hard during the pandemic and are still having to limit capacity.
“That coupled with the ongoing labor shortage, the trends in price inflation — it’s all just a perfect storm,” he said. “We are on the cusp of a recovery, and if our local government can remove restrictions sooner, it will give our businesses a fighting chance.”
“There is definitely frustration. There is pent-up demand for just wanting to return to normalcy,” he said.
Sherry Menor-McNamara, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii, said that for businesses the uncertainty of when the state will fully reopen has been particularly hard because it limits their ability to plan ahead.
“I think we are at that point where we are ready to fully reopen,” she said.
Brooks Baehr, a spokesman for the state Department of Health, said he understood the frustration, but stressed that the push to increase vaccination rates before fully reopening isn’t just about protecting those who refuse the vaccine, but also those in the community who aren’t eligible because of their young age or medical conditions.
When getting vaccinated, “you are definitely doing it for everyone,” he said.