In response to the increase in spread of COVID-19 on Oahu, city officials announced Tuesday new limits on social gatherings but said they are allowing businesses such as gyms, retailers and restaurants to remain open.

According to the new Oahu emergency order set to go into effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, no more than five people are allowed to congregate, whether in private or public settings. The order halves the size of groups allowed on Oahu, where the disease is most prevalent.

“If everyone can be cautious, then maybe we can avoid a total shutdown, which we don’t want to do,” Mayor Kirk Caldwell said. “I’m hopeful with this recent order that we’ll bring this number down to a level where we can start relaxing things again and learn to live with COVID-19 until there’s a vaccine.”

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell likened the decision to using a scalpel rather than a hammer, seemingly equating the hammer to a broader shutdown. 

When asked why outdoor and free activities such as hiking are being restricted — the health department has reported multiple cases associated with gyms but none linked definitely to trails or beaches — Caldwell said it’s a matter of regulation, not city revenue.

“What we’ve done is try to control unregulated outdoor gatherings,” he said.

Beaches, parks and bars are closed on Oahu, but other retailers and spiritual organizations are allowed to remain open as long as they ensure their customers wear masks and keep a distance from one another.

“We saw many mentions of unstructured social gatherings at parks and at the beach for these individuals who were not aware of where they got infected and that’s what led to this specific action,” Gov. David Ige said.

No singing or using wind instruments at spiritual services will be permitted, Caldwell said.

Tourism Delayed Again

The state is postponing its pre-travel testing program for travelers until Oct. 1 “at the earliest,” Ige said.

Officials had first discussed the option as a way to reopen the state’s tourism industry back in July. The program has been delayed twice now.

“We’ll continue to monitor conditions here in Hawaii as well as key markets on the mainland to determine the appropriate start date for the pre-travel test program,” he said. “We’ll be making that announcement in time so the hospitality industry will have the time they need to staff up and support the pre-travel testing program.”

Hawaii’s mandatory 14-day quarantine remains in effect, and the interisland travel quarantine was reinstated earlier this month. Oahu has seen the greatest increase in disease spread, but new cases have been found on the Big Island and Maui as well.

Gov. David Ige said he will pay attention to COVID-19’s spread in the islands and in “key markets” on the mainland when he considers the pre-travel test program implementation. 

Ige noted that hospitalizations have increased, and the hospital system is “stressed” but maintained Hawaii is still positioned to handle the current outbreak.

The city is still trying to acquire hotel space to use as emergency quarantine space and to prevent hospitals from overcrowding, according to Caldwell.

A Familiar Message

At the press conference Tuesday, state officials reiterated their message that the public must buy into distancing measures and that Hawaii is still equipped to handle the current outbreak. The familiar message came despite mounting criticism about the state’s response.

At a Hawaii House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness hearing Monday, legislators called on the state health department to release more data, and called for more oversight of how the department is handling COVID-19.

Health Director Bruce Anderson said the number of cases of COVID-19 has decreased slightly in the past couple of days, which could signal a “leveling off” of the wave of infection, but urged the public to keep up distancing measures. 

Hawaii’s contact tracing efforts fall short of national standards and last week the union that represents some DOH public health workers filed a grievance on their behalf.  A woman who works at the health department has spoken up about understaffing and unreasonable workloads.

Recent Oahu COVID-19 Clusters

DOH Director Bruce Anderson maintained Tuesday that the department is in the process of hiring more personnel to assist in COVID-19 response, including more contact tracers.

“We’re accelerating our efforts to bring contact tracing on, but again, I have to emphasize that it’s not a panacea to the problem; if people don’t stop spreading disease, contact tracing isn’t going to work,” he said. “We need to be social distancing, wearing a mask and avoiding large gatherings as the Mayor has emphasized in his order.”

The department has redeployed staff from other divisions, established teams of about 21 National Guard personnel, and is currently hiring more people to help with disease investigations with contact tracer trainees from the University of Hawaii and the health department’s Medical Reserve Corps, he said.

In a prior interview with Civil Beat, Anderson said the department plans to use more CARES Act funds to enhance laboratory testing capacity at the State Laboratories Division and also boost services for people in quarantine and isolation, along with the new hires.

“Along with contact tracers you need other investigators to help with identifying clusters,” he said. “We need statisticians and epidemiologists to understand better what the information can tell us about high risks and where we can best focus our activities.”

For more than two weeks, DOH officials have stated plans to release more data, but still have not offered a timeframe for when the department will do so.

On Tuesday, the health department did release some additional details about infection clusters on Oahu during the past month. The department has identified clusters tied to gyms, a homeless shelter, several restaurants, an automotive cleaning and detailing service, three fire stations, and two bars. Oahu Community Correctional Center is dealing with 287 cases. A funeral gathering led to 75 confirmed cases.

Teachers Want To Work From Home

The new order restricting social gatherings on Oahu exempts child care and education.

In a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Hawaii State Teachers Association President Corey Rosenlee argued that it’s not safe for teachers or students to come back into the classroom.

The teacher’s union head said he’s aware of 23 campuses with at least one positive reported case involving a staff member, student or campus visitor.

Rosenlee is demanding that all teachers be allowed to work from home.

“In order to reduce transmission, teachers should be allowed to work from home and no students should be coming on campus,” Rosenlee said. “Otherwise, (the governor) leaves gaping holes in these restrictions.”

The health department has yet to issue metrics on when it’s safe to reopen classrooms or when they should close. Anderson said he’s still working on putting together a task force and that DOH will “lean heavily” on recent federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance.

HSTA is calling for 100% distance learning across the state until the end of the quarter in early October.

Civil Beat Reporter Suevon Lee contributed to this report.

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