As Honolulu’s COVID-19 case numbers tick up, it seems inevitable that the island will meet the criteria by Wednesday for a return to harsher restrictions under Tier 2 of its reopening plan.

But on Monday, Mayor Rick Blangiardi said he doesn’t want to follow the original plan. Instead, he said he has requested a modification to Tier 3 to keep the rules the same.

Mayor Rick Blangiardi speaks to media during press conference held after his State of Honolulu speech.
Mayor Rick Blangiardi wants the island to open up and may change the tier system to make it happen. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

“I’m not an epidemiologist, but I also understand for this community, potential rollback to Tier 2 would be very, very difficult,” he said.

“The notion of rolling back to Tier 2 is something I am dead set against as mayor, and I’ll be on record as saying that.”

Tier 2 is designed to kick in when the island averages between 50 and 100 cases per day for two weeks in a row and would have meant more restrictions on gatherings and commercial activities.

Honolulu is set to meet those criteria for the second week. Last week’s average was 58 cases, and the island’s current average is 59, according to the Hawaii Department of Health.

Under the current Tier 2 rules, social get-togethers would be reduced from 10 to five; outdoor organized sports would be shut down again before they’ve even had a chance to resume; retail operations and spiritual services would be limited to 50% capacity; and gyms would be reduced from 50% to 25% capacity.

Structured events like conventions would again be disallowed. And weddings – which Blangiardi just approved for up to 100 people outdoors – would once again be limited to only five people.

The tier system was engineered by then-Mayor Kirk Caldwell, his advisors and the Hawaii Department of Health last year. The Blangiardi administration agreed to continue with the structure but made adjustments to the rules on March 11 to allow bars, conventions, large funerals and weddings to operate.

“I think, quite honestly, that the tier numbers, when they were constructed before, could’ve been too low,” Blangiardi said, noting that officials may not have anticipated how fast vaccines would roll out.

He said he now wants to redefine Tier 3 to allow for Tier 2’s case counts – 50 to 100, and a positivity rate around 2.5% – but maintain Tier 3’s loosened restrictions.

The mayor acknowledged he doesn’t know how COVID-19 variants, which scientists say spread more easily, could impact his vision.

Previously, restaurants were limited to hosting groups of five or fewer. The mayor doesn’t want to bring that restriction back. Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat/2020

“But I really do want to come down on the side of not only business but good community behavior and ask for everybody’s cooperation and wearing masks and distancing,” he said.

“And let’s just try to get on with our lives.”

Blangiardi said he has been encouraged by vaccination rates and reductions in hospitalizations and deaths. However, the mayor said he is concerned to hear about “rogue events” such as a concert in Waianae and a wedding in Kahuku that he said hosted 700 people.

“This is a race against time against a possible surge,” he said. “Those gatherings, none of which have been permitted or approved, have been possible centers. That has been the most unsettling part.”

On Monday, Ige appeared to endorse Blangiardi’s plan.

During the Honolulu Star-Advertisers “Spotlight” program, the governor said the decision is ultimately up to Blangiardi because the reopening framework is part of the county’s emergency orders. That’s despite a tussle last year in which Ige asserted control over Caldwell’s pandemic response.

“We are very much concerned with the high level of virus activity right now,” Ige said. “I know the mayor is trying to reassess and calibrate. We do see that there are fewer hospitalizations and fewer deaths, and I do think that comes into play.”

Civil Beat reporter Blaze Lovell contributed to this report. 


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