When Gov. David Ige issued new restrictions on gatherings last week, he said it was necessary in the midst of a sharp uptick in Covid-19 cases and stretched hospital capacity.

The limitations were strict: no more than 10 people could gather indoors, and no more than 25 outdoors, with restaurants and bars capped at 50% capacity. But the rules included exceptions for professionally planned events with more than 50 people, including weddings, concerts, festivals and conventions.

As cases continue to surge and intensive care units fill up, critics are raising concerns about continuing to allow large events at this point in the pandemic.

“Right now we have no control over the exponential growth,” said Monique Chyba, a mathematics professor at the University of Hawaii and member of the Hawaii Pandemic Applied Modeling Work Group. “We are not controlling the curve, it is controlling us and it’s spreading in an increasing way.”

There’s no explicit limit on how many people can attend large events. Event organizers must present mitigation plans to the counties and comply with certain rules, which are more stringent for indoor events.

“We know that we need to do something to stem the increasing case counts of COVID in our community,” Ige said during the Aug. 10 press conference announcing the restrictions.

“Professional events must comply with all state and county orders, rules and directives regarding operation,” he said.

Tim Sakahara, spokesman for Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi, said in an email that there’s no specific approval or rejection of the mitigation plans, which are reviewed by the staff of the city managing director.

“The City does not ‘approve’ or ‘reject’/’deny’ mitigation plans,” Sakahara wrote in an email. “The City reviews submitted mitigation plans to ensure the organizer has a plan, acknowledges they will implement the precautionary measures listed, and has a way to appropriately respond after the event was held, if necessary.”

The plans are posted on the city’s website every Tuesday and Friday, he said. As of last Friday, more than 700 pages of plans were posted for events with the number of attendees ranging from dozens to 4,000 people.

The mitigation plans require that event organizers answer questions about how they’ll make events safe. Sakahara said he did not have information as to whether any of the events that had been held were sites of Covid clusters.

Mitigation Efforts

For business owners struggling after more than a year of pandemic restrictions, the process has been a way to stay in business and comply with safety rules.

Sherry Menor-McNamara of the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii said the process was confusing at first to their membership, but she hasn’t heard of any applicants being denied.

Right now, her membership is focusing on increasing vaccinations and is aware that even more restrictions might be on the way as hospital resources continue to be stretched.

“The overarching fear is having another shutdown,” she said. “The focus has been to get as many people vaccinated as possible.”

Joseph Esser, president of the Oahu Wedding Association, said his organization is sending a letter to Blangiardi this week as a “preemptive acknowledgement of possible restrictions coming to our industry,” on top of the restrictions Ige added last week.

The group is proposing requiring temperature checks, masking and reduction of pods to 10 people for both indoor and outdoor events, as well as mandating either pretesting or vaccinations for both indoor and outdoor events.

Currently event organizers for indoor events in Honolulu must show proof of vaccination or negative Covid tests for attendees.

“If we can allow tourism, there’s no reason why we can’t allow these highly regulated events from happening,” Esser said. He emphasized the industry is willing to compromise on restrictions to avoid another shutdown.

“Most wedding professionals will say we’ll test every five minutes if that will allow us to keep our business open,” he said.

Weddings in Hawaii are still capped at 100 people indoors and 200 outdoors. But other big events don’t have those restrictions, and some of the events that submitted mitigation plans to the City and County of Honolulu included thousands of people.

Limitations Of Restrictions

The highly contagious nature of the delta variant makes public health experts wary about the safety of such events.

Thomas Lee, co-chair of the Hawaii Pandemic Applied Modeling Work Group, reviewed the mitigation plans and said he’s concerned.

“There’s too much variance in terms of enforcement and possibility for delta to really run rampant, in terms of what I’m seeing in the applications right now,” he said.

He noted Covid tests only show whether someone is infected at a certain time.

“With delta, it is a game changer with how much more (transmissible) it is, how quickly it can replicate and render a negative test pointless,” Lee said.

And while vaccinated people are less likely to be hospitalized or die of the virus, they can still spread the delta variant.

Catherine Pirkle, an associate professor of public health at the University of Hawaii, said she’d strongly discourage large events that include both vaccinated and unvaccinated people, even if they test negative for Covid beforehand.

“Those who are unvaccinated can still get the virus, despite the mitigation protocols, because there is potential for people to be carrying the virus without knowing it,” she said. “The larger the event, the more likely this will happen and the more people who can get infected.”

Covid cases are up 69% over the past 14 days with a positivity rate of 7.5%, according to state data.

“Even if you require vaccination or proof of testing it is no guarantee that it won’t be a superspreader event,” Chyba said.

She said any events that must be held would ideally be outdoors and require attendees to submit to both vaccinations and testing beforehand.

Upon reviewing the mitigation plans, Lee noted one event with 1,000 people across a couple of acres. While having ample space is good, he said, “You’re going to have chokepoints.”

Even if masks are required, “The staff can only enforce so much,” he said.

He recommended that only fully vaccinated people be allowed at indoor events or else mask wearing should be fully enforced.

“If we weren’t in a surge my thoughts would be different,” he said. “We have to balance opening with making sure hospitals don’t get overrun.”