COVID-19 has led to the most widespread regulation of public behavior since the 1918 Influenza pandemic, and no two states are quite alike. Who you can socialize with, where you can go out to eat and how you can exercise varies wildly depending on where you live.

In Georgia, people with certain illnesses — such as cancer, diabetes and asthma — can face misdemeanor charges for attending social functions or hosting guests at their home.

In Nebraska, gatherings of up to 10,000 people are allowed in certain counties, but in California, no more than three different households are allowed together at one time.

Rules on gatherings and business operations have been enacted across the country. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The range in state policies is partly due to the lack of federal guidance, said Tara Kirk Sell, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. Governments are trying to figure out how to avoid overwhelming hospitals with COVID-19 patients while keeping local economies afloat.

Stricter rules were implemented at the start of the pandemic to err on the side of caution, she said, but now more state officials are relaxing certain restrictions based on growing scientific research.

Hawaii isn’t the only state to close down beaches or make diners provide contact information at restaurants, but it still has some of the strictest restrictions in the country. 

“Compared to the number of cases we’ve had, we’ve taken a very aggressive approach,” said Colin Moore, director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Policing Public Behavior

Rules vary not just from state to state but county to county and even within cities.

New York state officials are closing neighborhoods based on geographic “coronavirus cluster” zones that went into effect this month, meaning a ZIP code can dictate whether or not you can go to school or dine inside a restaurant.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is deploying personnel to directly enforce state guidance within zones seeing spikes in COVID-19 cases.

Outdoor spaces have lower risks for coronavirus transmission, and Hawaii received significant public pushback when officials closed beaches and parks. Temporary beach, park and hiking trail closures lacked clarity and scientific explanation, some science experts said.

Puerto Rico closed beaches too — with exemptions for joggers, surfers and swimmers —  during periods where COVID-19 cases spiked. Last month the island of 3.2 million people reopened beaches to everyone, along with museums, outdoor concerts and theaters.

People gather near the Kapahulu Groin in Waikiki. Aug, 6 - Following a continued surge of COVID-19 cases and deaths, Mayor Caldwell’s Emergency Order 2020-23 includes the closure of City parks, most park facilities, all campgrounds, Botanical Gardens, and Community Gardens from Saturday, August 8 through Friday, September 4, 2020.
Oahu closed beaches for a second time in August after a spike in cases, although officials at the time could not point to any cases linked to beach activities. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

In states like New Mexico, you’re expected to wear a mask in public settings even when hiking or jogging — the deciding factor for such rules depends on how likely you’ll come into close contact with a stranger.

When it comes to dining and drinking, rules are often stricter.

During prior infection peaks, California and Delaware imposed rules that limited tables to household members only. Now those states place limits on table size and overall restaurant capacity but let people eat with whomever they choose, while other states — such as Florida — have no rules at all.

Many restaurants in states like Delaware are spending extra bucks to shift their operations outdoors, even in the winter, since capacity limits for indoor dining are hard to keep up with as local infection rates fluctuate. 

Open for Take out restaurants like L&L prepare for in restaurant dining after June 5, 2020 during COVID-19 pandemic. May 28, 2020
Restaurants in Hawaii have struggled to stay open with limits on in-person dining. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

There is mounting evidence that eating in restaurants and bars does come with a risk for catching the COVID-19 virus, according to new research by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Some leaders are trying to cut back on transmission by limiting alcohol consumption. Bars and restaurants in Kentucky and Mississippi have to cut off alcohol sales at 11 p.m., and to-go booze was temporarily prohibited in New Orleans.

Even amid worsening COVID-19 outbreaks, some states are still loosening their rules, such as Minnesota, where officials now allow groups of 10 to dine in at restaurants. As the weather gets colder in places like Illinois, some restaurants are opening indoor dining rooms despite state COVID-19 restrictions that forbid it

Health officials in Hawaii say people have caught the virus in Hawaii restaurants, bars and commercial kitchens.

“In order to eat or drink you have to take your mask off,” said Emily Roberson, who heads Hawaii’s contact tracing program, noting that could mean a higher likelihood of transmission. “We have had a number of clusters and a good amount of (COVID-19) transmission occurring among workers and patrons in food service settings here in Hawaii.”

Hawaii has ideal weather for outdoor or well ventilated indoor dining, and would be better off creating more places for people to eat outside, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci told Lt. Gov. Green this month.

Masking Up

Mask rules also run the gamut. In Texas, kids under the age of 10 are exempt from mask requirements. In New York and Pennsylvania, toddlers are expected to cover their face in grocery stores and on public buses. In North Dakota, masks are encouraged — but not required, except for employees in personal care services fields, such as massage and tattoo parlors.

The most extreme mask mandates in the country impose penalties, such as the $100 fine in Connecticut for people who don’t wear a mask when they are within six feet of other people in public spaces. Among the more lenient states is Florida, where the governor recently removed penalties and fees for violating mask rules.

People keep their distances at Ala Moana Shopping Center practicing social distancing as best as they can during a COVID-19 pandemic. September 29, 2020
Risks for contracting the COVID-19 virus in settings like shopping malls depends on one’s ability to distance from other people, according to the lead of Hawaii’s Disease Investigation Branch Emily Roberson. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Like Hawaii, Colorado businesses may deny service or admission to customers who do not wear a face mask.

Hawaii’s statewide emergency proclamation requires people to wear a face mask while inside an essential business or while waiting in line to enter one. Kauai and Oahu require wearing masks outdoors when social distancing is not possible.

A new survey conducted by the University of Hawaii Public Policy Center shows that Hawaii residents are following mask and gathering rules in public, but not as much at home or with friends.

“I don’t think it’s surprising, but it illustrates why this is so difficult,” said Moore, the center’s director. “Transmission can happen just as easily among people you love and trust, and that’s the trouble with this and that’s what makes it so hard.”

Making these sorts of policies is tricky, but in order to get public compliance, leaders must be explicit about their goals or what they want to achieve by putting protective measures in place, Kirk Sell said.

“We can’t shut everything down forever but also we have to remain vigilant and responsible about the activities that we do,” she said. “We should allow people to do things that are lower risk to prevent a complete disregard of the guidance.”

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