As many in the nation welcomed new federal guidance saying fully vaccinated Americans can stop wearing masks, Hawaii’s governor said Thursday that the state will continue to require everybody to wear masks when within 6 feet of people who aren’t in their household.

Gov. David Ige said he credits Hawaii’s mask policy for helping keep the state’s infection rates low and he doesn’t feel comfortable easing the rule with only 40% of Hawaii’s total population fully vaccinated.

Most children are not yet eligible for the vaccine, although eligibility expanded to include children as young as 12 this week.

“At this point in time with the majority of our community not vaccinated, and we are not able to determine whether someone is vaccinated or not, we will continue to maintain the mask mandate here in the state of Hawaii,” Ige said at a press conference. “The challenge is it’s impossible to determine who’s vaccinated and who’s not vaccinated.”

Visitors stroll along Kalakaua Avenue without their masks during the COVID-19 pandemic. April 27, 2021
In Waikiki, a popular tourism district on Oahu, there is rarely full compliance with Hawaii’s mandatory mask rule. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Ige spoke after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said people fully vaccinated against COVID-19 don’t need to wear masks or practice social distancing indoors or outdoors, with some exceptions.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said people whose immune systems are compromised should consult with their doctors before forgoing masks. And the requirement to wear masks during travel and on public transportation still stands, Walensky said, adding that guidance will be updated based on scientific developments.

The move came weeks after the agency said fully vaccinated people could skip masks outdoors in most situations.

Ige said he recognized that keeping Hawaii’s mask rules in place could cause some confusion, especially among visitors who have been flocking back to the island state, but the message will be made clear at airports in the state.

Critics have noted that many people already have begun disregarding the state’s mask rules, especially in tourist-heavy areas, underscoring the difficulty in enforcement.

“We have also reached out to our travel partners, the airlines and hotels to ask them to redouble efforts to ask travelers to be respectful of our rules and regulations and to remind them that there continues to be a mask mandate in the state of Hawaii and they will be required to wear masks indoors and outdoors unless they can maintain physical distancing,” Ige said.

People are considered fully vaccinated if they have waited at least two weeks since taking the final dose of a two-shot regimen required for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines or the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

The guidance for unvaccinated people remains the same: Wear a mask, keep six feet from others not in your household and wash your hands.

‘A Great Milestone’

Lt. Gov. Josh Green, the state’s COVID-19 medical liaison who has frequently pushed for looser restrictions, said that he believes Hawaii’s rules should mirror those of the CDC in light of Hawaii’s low infection case counts, low mortality and a growing vaccination rate.

“I think we should adopt it. I think it’s a statement of trust that the vaccination program is working and that it should also help to encourage people to be vaccinated,” Green said in an interview before the governor made his announcement. “I think it’s better to simplify, especially as people watch both national and local news.”

When asked how officials would be able to enforce mask use in crowds of people where it is impossible to tell who has received a shot or not, Green said it boils down to trust.

“We’re in this together. It’s cliche but it’s true. Skirting the rules only hurts us all,” he said. “We’ve been a little more conservative in some ways, but I think it’s time to move toward normalcy.”

President Joe Biden called the CDC’s latest advice a “great milestone” at a Thursday press conference at the White House.

“The rule is very simple. Get vaccinated or wear a mask until you do,” he told reporters.

Hawaii was not the only state to hold off on changing its mask rules. New Jersey’s governor also said his state would wait as it reviewed the new guidance as well.

Travel Restrictions Remain

The CDC’s new suggestions for fully vaccinated people also addressed questions about travel — and made it clear that getting a COVID-19 test before or after travel within the United States is no longer necessary, and neither is quarantining.

However, other countries may require a COVID-19 test, and U.S. citizens headed home from outside the country must show a negative test result or documentation of recovery from COVID-19 before boarding their  flight back to the United States, the CDC said. People should get tested three to five days after international travel, but they do not need to self quarantine, according to the new national recommendation.

In Hawaii, travelers are still subject to a 10-day quarantine if they cannot show proof of a negative COVID-19 test result acquired within 72 hours of their last flight to the islands.

Hawaii began allowing people who were vaccinated in the state to bypass the testing protocols on Tuesday. Ige said the state is still working out how to verify and validate COVID-19 vaccinations for travelers who got inoculated out of state and inter-Pacific arrivals.

Green said that the pilot program is going well so far, and more than 7,000 have registered their COVID-19 vaccination histories in the state’s Safe Travels online portal in the past two days.

“I called our airport administrator and he expressed almost shock that there was almost no problem,” Green said.

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