Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi is accelerating Oahu’s reopening beyond what his predecessor’s tier system allowed.
Effective immediately, Honolulu bars can reopen for groups up to 10, large funerals and conventions can be held and next month, outdoor sporting events can resume, Blangiardi announced on Thursday.
The changes were not part of the city’s tier-based reopening plan, designed under Mayor Kirk Caldwell to adjust restrictions based on COVID-19 case counts and the test positivity rate. Instead, Blangiardi decided to adjust the rules within the city’s current tier, and Gov. David Ige approved it.
Oahu has a seven-day average of 24 cases and a positivity rate of 1 percent, according to OneOahu.org. There were 30 new cases on Thursday.
Youth sports can commence starting April 12, and adult sports can start on April 19, Blangiardi said.
“We’re very excited that we’re going to get that back,” he said.
Players will be required to wear masks and the city will not allow spectators at sporting events, city officials said. When not actively playing, players will be required to socially distance, they said. Permits will be required.
“We know it’s a bit of a hardship, but in the big picture our kids win out on this,” Blangiardi said.
Councilwoman Andria Tupola said she and hundreds of community members advocated for the return of youth sports.
“I am just very grateful that these concerns and this advocacy did not fall on deaf ears,” she said. “No pushback from this administration as far as listening to our concerns and trying to proceed forward.”
Chad Owens, a former professional football player, said it’s been difficult for athletes to be sidelined.
“They have gone through probably the longest off-season of life,” said Owens, host of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s “The CO2 RUN DWN.” “I feel like it’s game time.”
While people will not be allowed to gather outside for sporting events, they will be able to assemble at bars, which now can open for table service only.
But for bars that have been closed for most of the last year, Thursday’s news is too little too late, said Bill Comerford, chairman of the Hawaii Bar Owners Association.
Many are deep in debt, have lost all their staff and may never open again, said Comerford, who blames former Mayor Kirk Caldwell for rules Comerford felt were arbitrary and unfair. Relief dollars Comerford received for his four Irish pubs barely covered his tax bill and liquor licenses, he said.
“When you only do 5 percent of your sales in a year, how do you survive?” he asked. He added that bar owners he’s spoken to are scared that if they do reopen, they’ll only get shut down again for a pandemic-related infraction.
The ability to hold funerals of any size is a welcome change for Jay Morford, president of the Hawaii Funeral & Cemetery Association. Families have struggled to limit memorial services to 10 people for much of last year, and more recently 25 people.
“That puts a huge burden on the family, especially with the size of families in Hawaii,” he said. “We are very, very pleased that the mayor saw that this was a concern of the community.”
The city is also allowing “structured events” at large venues, including conventions and gatherings in banquet halls as long as the gathering is “static.” That means “attendees reserve a seat, attend the seated event, and leave,” according to the city rules.
Capacity for these events is not specified, but social distancing must be maintained and masks are required. Groups attending the event are limited to 10, the rules state.
Weddings that involve gatherings of more than 10 people are still prohibited, Blangiardi said. While funerals are unscheduled events, he said, weddings are “celebratory” and “just a bridge too far.”
The island is currently in Tier 3. When it reaches Tier 4, Blangiardi said the city will ease restrictions on commercial recreation boating and commercial gyms, from 50% capacity to 75%.
Bars will be allowed to reopen without any requirements for ventilation or air filtration, according to the mayor.
“I can’t tell you we’ve established certain criteria,” he said. “We’ll see what happens. We’re going to carefully monitor those facilities. The last thing we want is any kind of an outbreak.”
Several other cities and states have established programs to incentivize or require ventilation and/or filtration of the viral particles in the air.
The mayor’s order directs indoor spaces like lunchrooms, break rooms and conference rooms, as well as essential businesses, to “improve circulation of fresh air by opening windows/doors, improving ventilation systems, etc. to the extent possible and feasible.” However, there is no penalty for failing to do it.
Allowing indoor gatherings, particularly without air quality standards, worries health experts who say there haven’t been adequate mitigation efforts for airborne transmission of the virus.
F. DeWolfe Miller, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Hawaii, is concerned about Honolulu reopening too quickly.
“He’s got all this economic pressure on his shoulders,” he said of the mayor.
Allowing large gatherings like funerals is a risk, DeWolfe Miller said. Public health officials identified a large COVID-19 cluster associated with funerals in Kalihi last year.
“We want to vaccinate and mask up until we’ve crushed it,” he said. “We don’t want to have this thing springing back to life on us. So, it’s better to be a little neurotic about this when you’re thinking about the whole community.”
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