Residents and visitors on Oahu are required to wear masks in public whenever social distancing isn’t possible – and that includes when you’re with members of your own household, Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s office said on Monday.

That has been the rule on the books since early September, according to Caldwell’s office. Yet many people have walked through parks and visited beaches maskless, perhaps under the impression that if they’re with the people they live with – and they stay 6 feet from others – then masks aren’t necessary.

That’s incorrect, the mayor’s office clarified on Monday afternoon in response to a Civil Beat inquiry.

“Members from the same household are required to wear masks in public if they’re within six feet of each other,” said Caldwell Communications Director Alexander Zannes. “The city is continuing to educate the public on the importance of mask wearing while in public.”

Mayor Kirk Caldwell gives out free paper masks to beachgoers at Waikiki Beach after a press conference announcing additional COVID-19 quarantine hotel rooms in Waikiki for residents. October 19, 2020

Mayor Kirk Caldwell gave out free masks to beachgoers at Waikiki’s Kuhio Beach on Monday.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The rule may come as a shock to many people, even those who have read the mayor’s pandemic orders.

Previously, this was the rule: “All individuals within the City shall wear face coverings while outdoors in public spaces when maintaining a physical distance of six (6) feet from persons who are not members of the same household or residence is not feasible.” (Emphasis ours.)

But the mayor’s September emergency order makes a subtle but significant change. It states: “All individuals within the City shall wear face coverings while outdoors in public spaces when maintaining a physical distance of six (6) feet from other individuals is not feasible.” (Again, emphasis ours.)

To make matters more confusing, when defining “six (6)-foot distances,” the September order states: “All persons shall maintain a minimum of six (6)- feet of physical distance from all other persons who are not members of the same household/living unit.”

On Monday evening, Zannes followed up with Civil Beat to say the city would be asking Gov. David Ige to change the rule back to the way it was. The mayor is expected to announce a loosening of restrictions on Thursday.

If you looked at Honolulu’s beaches and parks in recent weeks, it would appear few people seemed to pick up on the rule change. Many people have distanced themselves from other individuals, couples and groups, but few people have worn masks within their own bubbles.

At a press conference on Monday, Caldwell said he’s heard complaints about tourists not wearing face coverings while outside.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell at press conference announcing additional rooms for kamaaina that need to quaranting due to COVID-19 concerns. October 19, 2020

Mayor Kirk Caldwell said police will focus on warnings first, but citations could come later.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“I’m a little discouraged by the fact that our partners in the visitor industry have not started to educate visitors,” he said, adding that airlines and hotels should hand out brochures with the rules clearly laid out. “We have a lot of rules and regulations in place, and you could end up getting cited, and it won’t be a pleasant experience.”

But the city itself hasn’t done much to publicize its own rule change.

On OneOahu.org, the island’s central hub for pandemic information, the Frequently Asked Questions section included this entry as of last week, according to the Internet Archive: “Am I required to wear a face covering? Yes, face coverings are required on Oahu when entering an essential business or traveling on public transportation except for those who meet specific exceptions.”

It said nothing about household members.

Today, the answer to the same question is: “Yes, face coverings are required on Oahu when entering an essential business, participating in most activities, traveling on public transportation, and when outdoors if you cannot maintain physical distance of at least 6 feet from others (including members of the same family or household).”

HPD spokeswoman Michelle Yu did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday evening.

On Monday afternoon, Zannes said people could start getting criminal citations for violating the mask rule. Those found guilty are subject to a fine up to $5,000 and/or up to a year behind bars. However, many pandemic-related citations are being dismissed by prosecutors.

“Right now, the emphasis is on education,” Zannes said. “Obviously if people aren’t compliant, there are going to be citations for sure.”

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