After a week in which Hawaii saw an average of over 500 new cases of COVID-19 each day, Gov. David Ige announced Tuesday he is imposing emergency restrictions to limit many types of social gatherings, but there will be some exceptions.

Ige said the new executive order will not affect the operations of public schools or most businesses, but will limit the size of gatherings in restaurants, bars and other public settings effective immediately.

More people are getting vaccinated as the shots have become more widely available, and as the state implements a new vaccine and testing policy for public workers. But Ige said the state does not expect to see the benefits of the additional vaccinations reflected in the illness statistics for another six or seven weeks.

“We know that we need to do something to stem the increasing case counts of COVID in our community,” Ige said.

Governor David Ige speaks during press conference held at Prince David Kawananakoa Middle School.
Gov. David Ige tightened COVID-19 restrictions Tuesday through a new executive order. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The new order will limit social gatherings to no more than 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors, Ige said at a press conference. “For all high risk activities such as bars, restaurants, gyms and social establishments, indoor capacity is set at 50%.”

Patrons in those settings must remain seated, with at least 6 feet between each party, Ige said. “There will be no mingling, and masks must be worn at all times except when actively eating or drinking,” he added.

However, Ige also announced there will be exceptions to the new policy. He said that each county will establish its own process for granting special permission for “professionally organized” events that involve more than 50 people, and said that could include weddings, banquets, meetings and conventions, and even events at the Waikiki Shell.

Organizers of those larger events would need to submit “mitigation plans” to the counties that would be reviewed to ensure they are adequate, he said.

For organizers who have already planned large-scale events, they should reach out to the counties, he said.

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Hawaii Restaurant Association Executive Director Sheryl Matsuoka said her organization expected new restrictions would be imposed amid Hawaii’s increasing case counts and hospitalizations.

“We are glad that was the only change in his emergency mandate,” she said of the new caps on gatherings. “We were concerned because we were watching the numbers also.”

Prior to Ige’s Tuesday announcement, restaurants were allowed to operate at 75% capacity, Matsuoka said. She was flooded with inquiries after Ige made his announcement, including calls from operators who had already booked large group events such as birthdays or weddings.

Instead of one table of 25, those parties will have to be broken up into separate tables, six feet apart, she told them.

The pandemic triggered two restaurant shutdowns in 2020, she said, and has forced HRA members into a struggle for survival.

“Now you see some lines, you see it a little bit crowded, but we’re still at 6-foot distancing, and the dining rooms can only hold 50% capacity, where most restaurants and your financials are all structured around 100% capacity,” she said. “You only have 50% of your income, but then you have to pay 100% of your bills.”

Hawaii reported 436 new cases on Tuesday for a total of 47,376, with 543 deaths. The new cases included 292 on Oahu, 76 on the Big Island, 36 on Maui, 15 on Kauai and 17 diagnosed out of state. The vaccination rate inched up to 60.9%

The positivity rate stood at 7.25%, Ige said, and there were 219 COVID-19 patients in hospitals statewide.

“The delta variant has truly changed the COVID-19 pandemic here in the islands,” Ige said. “We have seen increased transmission, and we must take action in order that our health system is not overwhelmed.”

State Health Director Libby Char said last week that about 95% of the people being hospitalized with COVID-19 in Hawaii are not vaccinated. The latest Hawaii data shows about 300 out of every 10,000 unvaccinated people are being infected, while only six out of every 10,000 people who have been vaccinated get COVID-19, she said.

Ige said he has no specific trigger in mind that would prompt him to relax the new restrictions, but said authorities will watch the infections and hospitalization rates closely to determine the next steps.

The new policy was endorsed by Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi, Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami, Hawaii County Mayor Mitch Roth and Maui County Managing Director Sandy Baz on behalf of Maui Mayor Mike Victorino.

In response to questions, Ige said Tuesday there have recently been “spot shortages” of COVID-19 tests around the state, but described that as “just a short-term phenomenon.”

“We know that we have a short-term shortage because of the rapid increase in the number of cases that we’re seeing. We don’t anticipate that that will last for too long as we are able to staff up in the clinics that are doing testing and making the test kits and test materials available to everyone,” Ige said.

The state has increased its capacity for PCR tests to more than 10,000 per day, and there are many newly developed rapid antigen and PCR tests that provide results in 15 minutes or less, he said.

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