State and county officials are discussing what possible measures to put in place as the state monitors more than 580 active infections and continues to see record numbers of new daily cases.

“We want to avoid a broad kind of shut down,” Gov. David Ige said at a press conference Wednesday. “We don’t have specific agreements at this point in time. The whole notion of walking back restrictions — (those) are complex issues.”

Governor David Ige wears his mask during Coronavirus COVID19 press conference as other speakers share information at the Capitol. Apirl 8, 2020.
Gov. David Ige said reinstating restrictions on bars is still under discussion with county mayors. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said Wednesday that he is still calling for bars to close for three weeks, and exploring other ways to prevent COVID-19 at parks and beaches, such as banning tents.

“It sounds like a harsh thing to do, but we already have mandates in place that control gathering sizes,” Caldwell said at a press conference. “You can’t gather more than 50 indoors and 100 outdoors.”

But a day after Caldwell called for masks to be mandatory in all public spaces — indoors and outdoors — he walked back that proposal after an advisory board said it was not medically necessary outside if people were properly distanced, according to Hawaii News Now.

A record 109 new COVID-19 cases were recorded Wednesday, only four of which were associated with travel. Community transmission of the disease is widespread on Oahu, according to Department of Health Director Bruce Anderson. A quarter of Wednesday’s cases were among juveniles under the age of 18.

The Trouble With Bars

Fourth of July celebrations, birthday parties at the beach and even funerals have been the source of recent clusters in Hawaii, which is seeing the highest surge in cases to date.

So why are bars the focus as officials consider reinstating restrictions?

Ige and Anderson said they consider the risk of virus transmission to be higher at bars, where people interact in close quarters and go without masks as they drink. When inebriated, people are not as cautious about distancing, Anderson added.

The health department has received 150 complaints about restaurants and food-serving bars where patrons or employees have not worn masks, Anderson said. Inspectors may issue a red placard to restaurants that do not comply with the state’s guidance, meaning the restaurant must shut down entirely.

Ige said the state wants to continue to penalize establishments that violate room capacity or mask-wearing orders, rather than making a blanket shut down order.

“Each of the mayors have asked their liquor commissions to respond to complaints we’ve received from bars that have not limited the number of patrons … or they have made no attempt to implement the guidance we’ve provided,” Ige said.

Hawaii officials say they believe there’s a higher risk for catching COVID-19 in bars because of the socializing that happens there. nickster 2000/

Anderson pointed to two clusters associated with bars in downtown Honolulu, where at least a dozen people have contracted the virus. Officials called out publicly to patrons of Brix and Bones and Arena 808, asking them to see their doctor and get tested if they went to the bar during the past week and a half.

When asked about what data or scientific evidence the officials use when considering such restrictions, Anderson said factors such as noise and alcohol mean people may speak louder and more directly into others’ faces. Bars on the mainland have been credited for major outbreaks in states like California and Texas, he said.

The Department of Health already regulates restaurants for food and safety violations and has implemented its placard system for COVID-19 guidelines. Bars that serve food and restaurants will receive a warning both verbally and in writing for violations, Anderson said.

Both officials said they’d prefer to keep with existing regulatory approaches to manage the situation and work directly with bar owners, but that may change.

“The solution in other places has been to shut down for a period of time, and that’s what’s being considered,” Anderson said. “It could be that shutting bars down earlier in the evening could be a solution. We may need to close bars because of the inherent risk associated with them.”  

On Oahu, where the bulk of COVID-19 cases have been recorded, officials are looking at more hardline approaches. But on Hawaii island, where officials are monitoring only two active cases, fire and police department staff say they are taking an educational approach when visiting restaurants and bars and responding to complaints.

“We come in with an education trainer and answer questions,” Deputy Fire Chief Robert Perreira said. “We push it on to enforcement if compliance is not met.”

‘Less Risky’ Outdoors

Lt. Gov. Josh Green said the major factors in coronavirus transmission during the pandemic have been people being in close proximity indoors, when not wearing masks or distancing from one another.

Green commended the state’s regulatory approach and likened it to “using a scalpel rather than a sledgehammer” against the bar and restaurant industry.

“The research right now has been showing that open-air restaurants, dining, being outdoors and getting the same kind of service that you would otherwise get indoors is much less risky,” Green said at the press conference. “There’s a lot greater risk to being in an indoor closed setting, which is why we really have to socially distance in restaurants or in bars or wherever we are.”

Lt. Gov. Josh Green, the state’s medical liaison during the COVID-19 pandemic, says there is growing scientific evidence that shows indoor situations have a higher risk for contracting the virus. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

A Japanese study of 100 COVID-19 cases found the risk of infection could be as much as 20 times greater in indoor settings than outdoors.

If case numbers continue to rise, that’s when shutdowns could be reinstated across the board.

“When we see 500 a day that’s when we’ll lose track of the number of cases,” Green said. “That’s where really large scale changes I assume would have to come.”

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