Gov. David Ige took a major step toward restoring normalcy on Tuesday, saying people in Hawaii no longer need to wear masks outdoors, although the face coverings will still be required indoors since more than half the population has yet to be fully vaccinated.

Ige also lifted the suspension of permits for outdoor sporting events such as surf competitions effective June 1.

The decision brought Hawaii’s pandemic policies more in line with the science around the spread of the coronavirus, which causes a respiratory illness that is most easily caught indoors.

Earlier this month, the New York Times reported, “there is not a single documented COVID infection anywhere in the world from casual outdoor interactions, such as walking past someone on a street or eating at a nearby table.”

Masked and unmasked visitors stroll along Kalakaua Avenue as more visitors arrive. Saturdays arrivals topped almost 25,000 people. March 24, 2021
Gov. David Ige has lifted Hawaii’s outdoor mask mandate. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The outdoor mask mandate was part of a broader strategy by Hawaii political leaders to crack down on outdoor activities in response to the pandemic. Last year, former Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration ticketed tens of thousands for pandemic violations such as entering closed parks, despite criticism from scientists. When other cities were opening up streets and drastically expanding outdoor dining, Honolulu wasn’t. Even the U.S. Surgeon General got ticketed for entering a Honolulu park to take pictures.

Until Tuesday, Ige had continued to mandate masks outdoors even for vaccinated people despite federal guidelines that say it’s safe for vaccinated people to resume activities without wearing masks.

During Tuesday’s press conference, Ige encouraged people to voluntarily continue wearing masks when gathering outside in large groups and urged everyone to get vaccinated.

Officials said 47% of the state’s population has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and 57% has received at least one shot.

Hawaii’s lifting of its outdoor mask mandate applies to everyone, vaccinated or not.

State Health Director Libby Char said it’s very unlikely that the virus can spread outside.

“The data shows us pretty clearly now that outdoor activities is quite safe,” Char said. “The transmission rates are very, very low, I believe it’s less than 1% if you’re outdoors.”

Char noted that Hawaii residents who are aged 16 and older have been eligible for vaccinations since April 19. In May, children aged 12 and up became eligible for the vaccine in Hawaii.

Safe Travels Program

The changes come as Hawaii sees a rise in COVID-19 variants even as the overall number of cases is relatively low.

“Maybe 80% of all the cases we’re sequencing are all variants,” Char said, noting an increase in coronavirus variants from California and Brazil. “We’re definitely watching because some of those are more easily transmissible.”

At the same time, Ige has been facing criticism for continuing regulations that some see as outdated at this point in the pandemic.

Hawaii continues to mandate that all people, including those who are vaccinated, must quarantine for 10 days upon traveling to the state unless they get a negative COVID-19 test from an approved testing site or otherwise qualify for an exemption.

The requirement has been frustrating to some vaccinated people who find themselves in long lines upon arrival to prove they aren’t carrying the virus.

Ige said Tuesday that the state is looking to provide quarantine exemptions for vaccinated people next month and said one cause of the delay is the time it’s taking to set up a system to track vaccinations.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green noted that Hawaii saw 23 new coronavirus cases Tuesday.

“The cases are coming down, the vaccinations are going up and that’s the big picture,” he said.

Changes on Kauai

Hawaii mayors praised the news at the virtual press conference and said that the governor’s latest decision would enable youth sports to resume without children being required to wear masks.

Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami also wants to add a Tier 5 and Tier 6 to the county’s reopening plan as the statewide vaccination rate nears a landmark 50%.

Kawakami is seeking Ige’s approval to further loosen restrictions when the state vaccination rate reaches 60% by increasing the maximum group size limit to 25 people in indoor settings and 75 people outdoors. The maximum capacity for businesses and activities would rise to 75%.

In addition to the 60% vaccination threshold, Tier 5 would also require that Kauai’s seven-day average coronavirus case count is less than 3 with a test positivity rate under 1%.

Tier 6 — which would allow businesses and events to operate at full capacity — would go into effect once 70% of residents statewide are fully vaccinated, effectively abolishing the tier system that has guided the island’s virus recovery.

Civil Beat reporter Brittany Lyte contributed to this story. 

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