Two days before New Year’s Eve, Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi defended his administration’s decision not to impose more restrictions despite record-breaking Covid-19 case counts and rising hospitalization numbers.

At a press conference outside Honolulu Hale Wednesday, Blangiardi criticized the media and took issue with the state Department of Health for what he characterized as unfair depictions of the situation. He said the media had exaggerated the scope of the current wave, using terms such as “surging numbers” and “staggering” positivity rates, adding that he complained to a news director about that description.

“That kind of sensationalism is not going to get us to where we need to go,” said Blangiardi, former general manager of the TV station Hawaii News Now.

Covid cases have surged nearly 600% on Oahu over the past two weeks. The city’s test positivity rate exceeded 15% on Wednesday. The seven-day average of daily new Covid cases is worse in Honolulu than at any other time in the pandemic.

Mayor Rick Blangiardi speaks to media before the annual holiday tree arrives at Honolulu Hale.
Mayor Rick Blangiardi speaks to media before the annual holiday tree arrives at Honolulu Hale in this November 2021 photo. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Blangiardi cited an analysis concluding that omicron is less severe than other variants of Covid and emphasized that each case doesn’t correspond with someone in an intensive care unit bed.

The mayor said the vast majority of Honolulu residents have gotten two vaccination shots and urged those eligible for boosters to get them. He reiterated his desire for Honolulu residents to exercise personal responsibility and to make choices that prevent the disease’s spread, such as not attending gatherings where they feel uncomfortable.

The mayor also criticized the state Department of Health, which has urged the counties to adopt more stringent gathering restrictions. The agency on Wednesday announced shortened isolation and quarantine rules to reflect changing federal guidelines.

“We’ve heard a lot about personal responsibility but that alone we don’t think is adequate,” Health Department spokesman Brooks Baehr told Hawaii News Now earlier this week. 

Blangiardi responded Wednesday: “I really didn’t like the way the spokesman from the Department of Health twisted that … We’re not passing the buck on responsibility.”

The mayor praised what he called “soft lockdowns” which he described as businesses and individuals choosing not to engage in high-risk activities, such as businesses shutting down temporarily because staff or performers have Covid.

He urged businesses where there’s indoor dancing to suspend that this weekend. But he said the city won’t regulate it or shut down nightclubs, despite data showing that’s where Covid has been spreading.

“We are nearly two years into this disease,” he said. “People and businesses know what to do.”

“It’s not like we’re sacrificing people for the sake of business,” he added. “We’re trying to manage the whole thing as intelligently and responsibly as we can.”

Omicron makes up 66% of cases in the state: 78% of the cases in Honolulu, 40% in Hawaii County and 20% of cases in Maui County, according to a new variant report that analyzed data from two weeks ending on December 18.

The fast-spreading variant has infected vaccinated and unvaccinated people alike, but unvaccinated people continue to be most likely to be hospitalized and die. State data indicates white people aged 18 to 44 have been more likely to get infected so far during this surge.

Blangiardi said he would consider more restrictions once Covid hospitalizations exceed 150 per day in order to prevent hospitals from being overrun. As of Wednesday, Honolulu has 95 Covid hospitalizations.

In response to a question about preventing more people from getting hospitalized from Covid, Blangiardi responded, “I don’t think we can prevent these numbers.”

“We really can’t get out in front of this disease,” he said. “It is that virulent.”

Blangiardi’s approach contrasts with how Hawaii leaders have handled previous surges. Faced with months without a vaccine, former Mayor Kirk Caldwell closed beaches and parks, imposing lockdowns that forced more than 200,000 Hawaii residents to apply for unemployment.

During the delta surge in August, Hawaii Gov. David Ige urged tourists to stay away and imposed gathering limits that shut down indoor and outdoor weddings.

In November, Ige ceded authority over Covid regulations to the counties. Blangiardi promptly lifted gathering restrictions.

Hawaii County took a different tack. There, Mayor Mitch Roth continued to impose a 25-person limit on indoor gatherings, minus county-approved exceptions. Roth, who is isolating after testing positive for Covid despite being vaccinated and boosted, dropped that restriction to 10 people this week.

Ige said at a press conference Wednesday that he doesn’t plan to remove the authority he gave the counties.

“We have shared best practices with all the counties,” he said. “All of the mayors have been making decisions on behalf of their counties. It is a balancing act about public health versus enforcement versus other criteria that come into play.”

Blangiardi emphasized that the City and County of Honolulu still has restrictions: businesses like nightclubs must still require proof of vaccination or a negative test before entering. He said he’s concerned about the mental health impact of further lockdowns.

“We’re not going to impose any further restrictions. We don’t want to close down businesses right now,” he said, adding that he thinks the city already has a lot of regulations in place and doesn’t have money to support businesses if they’re forced to close. “Now is not the time to start closing businesses.”

Hawaii hospitals are relatively busy with non-Covid cases. At the peak of Hawaii’s delta surge, 2,365 patients were in Hawaii’s hospitals. On Wednesday, that number was 2,200.

Hilton Raethal, head of the Healthcare Association of Hawaii, which represents Hawaii hospitals, said Tuesday that the organization has asked the state to request the Federal Emergency Management Agency to send more than 700 health care workers to help with an expected surge in Hawaii.

He supports limiting large indoor gatherings and said waiting until there are more than 300 daily Covid hospitalizations would be too late to put public health measures in place.

We are very concerned about those large indoor gatherings, those high risk scenarios,” he said. “Curtailing those sooner rather than later would be our preference and our guidance.” 

Blangiardi said there’s no logic or science that says limiting indoor gatherings to 10 people would stop the spread of the omicron variant, despite the Department of Health supporting some limitations.

“I think we’re working and living in a situation with a very different variant than we had before,” he said. “There’s no policy to figure your way out of that.”

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