Hawaii Gov. David Ige and Honolulu Mayor Blangiardi on Friday announced new Covid-19 rules that will allow Oahu residents to attend football games, outdoor weddings and other events as long as they are fully vaccinated against the virus and wear face masks.

Ige and Blangiardi have been under pressure to allow people to attend University of Hawaii football games as Covid cases and hospitalizations have continued to fall. University of Hawaii is the only college among 130 colleges with major sports programs nationwide that doesn’t allow attendees at games.

The ban has been frustrating to local fans, particularly because studies show Covid spreads primarily indoors and outdoor transmission of the respiratory virus is extremely rare.

Empty Clarence TC Ching Athletic Complex and stadium during the first home game of UH vs Portland State Vikings during a surge in Covid-19 cases statewide. September 4, 2021
The first home game of University of Hawaii versus the Portland State Vikings on Sept. 4 had empty stands during a surge in Covid-19 cases. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Hawaii reported 201 new coronavirus cases Friday and seven deaths. Cases have been on a downward trend since the state’s delta variant surge peaked in August. More than 69% of the state is fully vaccinated, and more than 77% of the total population has gotten at least one shot.

Honolulu has the highest vaccination rate of any county at 72%, with 79% of the total population having had at least one shot.

Hawaii has been limiting access to establishments like bars and restaurants to people who are fully vaccinated or present a negative Covid test. But the rules announced Friday will open large events only to people who are vaccinated, with no exceptions for unvaccinated people with a negative test.

It’s huge news that we’ll be able to reopen again. That’s what we’ve been fighting for,” said Joseph Esser, president of the Oahu Wedding Association, which has been protesting the ban on large weddings.

The new city rules allow restaurants and bars to serve alcohol until midnight effective immediately, and vaccinated people to start attending outdoor seated entertainment events such as football games and soccer games as of Wednesday.

But no more than 1,000 people — or 50% of the venue’s capacity, whichever is fewer — will be allowed at first. That’s in stark contrast to other states where tens of thousands of sports fans have been attending games.

“A thousand seemed like a reasonable number,” Blangiardi said during a Zoom press conference Friday.

David Matlin, athletics director at the University of Hawaii, told reporters the school will prioritize season ticket holders and said he’s optimistic that the university will be able to add more fans if Covid cases continue to fall.

“If things continue to get better, then we will be advocating for more fans and work with the proper authorities for that for the final two games,” Matlin said.

No Indoor Weddings

Also on Wednesday, the city will begin to allow road races and triathlons with up to 500 attendees and also allow golf tournaments. At both types of events, everyone must be vaccinated, but no one will be required to be masked outdoors.

The following week, on Oct. 20, indoor event attendance will open up. The rules will allow for up to 500 people — or 50% of the venue’s capacity, whichever is fewer — to attend indoor seated entertainment such as volleyball games and concerts.

“Attendees must be vaccinated, masked, and physically distanced. A mitigation plan is required,” the city’s press release said of both indoor and outdoor seated events. “Other than water, no food or beverages are allowed.”

Also on Oct. 20, the city will begin to allow what it’s calling “outdoor interactive events,” which includes weddings and funerals.

Indoor weddings are still limited to no more than 10 people, and unregulated outdoor social gatherings will still be capped at 25 people.

But outdoor weddings will be allowed to occur with up to 150 attendees — or 50% of the venue’s capacity, whichever is less — as long as everyone is vaccinated. Blangiardi said that children under 12 will be allowed even though vaccinations are not available to them yet.

Unlike football games and concerts, weddings and funerals will be allowed to have food and drinks. But “mingling and interaction” between guests will require masks, even though the events are outdoors.

Esser from the Oahu Wedding Association said that even with the restrictions, the wedding industry is celebrating the ability to get back to work. He said the industry in Hawaii lost at least 90% of its revenue in September.

“We really couldn’t have held out much longer,” he said, adding he hopes the industry never has to endure a third shutdown. 

Outdoor Covid Transmission Rare

Monica Gandhi, a physician and professor at the University of California at San Francisco, said Hawaii should be encouraging outdoor events without restrictions because it’s extremely difficult for Covid to spread outside.

“If you put in place rules that don’t make sense to people — like everyone’s vaccinated and everyone’s outside but they still have to mask while they’re walking around — that will just encourage distrust in public health officials,” she said.  

She cited four studies, including one out of Wuhan, China, that found just one of more than 7,300 Covid infections were transmitted outdoors.

She doesn’t know of any states that are as restrictive as Hawaii. She noted California is now allowing indoor weddings up to 100 people without masks as long as everyone is vaccinated. She believes that restricting outdoor interactions pushes people indoors.

“It’s really fine to be in large groups unmasked because of this air,” she said, clarifying that transmission could occur if two people are extremely close together and yelling at one another.

In response to a question about whether any Hawaii Covid transmission has occurred outside, the governor said at Friday’s press conference that the state hasn’t been able to identify where people are catching Covid in many cases.

“The mayor and I agree that as an added step of caution, we are asking everyone attending events to be masked,” Ige said. “Is it the best policy? We could get away without it. But we do believe that we want to be successful, we want these first few events to be successful, and so we are being cautious in laying it out.”

Blangiardi acknowledged that maybe they’re being overly cautious but said that it’s due to the incredible infectiousness of the delta variant and the surge that stressed Hawaii hospitals over the last two months.

“We want to be as safe as we possibly can. Is it an inconvenience? Yeah.  You think I want to watch a football game with a mask on? No, nobody wants to do that,” he said. “That’s the fact of where we are right now, but we want to move forward so we can do that, and hopefully maybe the next time around we’ll be a little bit more comfortable about that.”

The governor said there’s no particular benchmark that he’s using to determine whether to loosen restrictions further.

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