Opinion article badgeIt really is OK that Gov. David Ige is being all Nervous-Nelly and not letting Hawaii residents and visitors take off masks indoors like the cool kids in all the other 49 states.

He’s not a bold-move kind of guy, and being cautious has served Hawaii well over the pandemic years. Even though we will be wearing masks at least through March 25 (the end-date for the current Covid-19 Emergency Proclamation) we’re getting there. After two long years of naïvely thinking the end of the pandemic was right around the corner only to be disappointed again and again, finally, the signs are everywhere.

Take heart. The Aunties are back in the Stan Sheriff.

The Aunties, the kupuna cheering squad sitting courtside at every University of Hawaii men’s volleyball game (and at the Wahine volleyball games as well … the Aunties don’t discriminate) are back in the stands doing their little Aunty dances. To see them there almost brings a tear to the eye. Things are finally looking up.

People are shaking hands again. They’re hugging to say hello and goodbye instead of waving hello and goodbye from 6 feet apart or using those awkward elbow bumps. The UH men’s volleyball team shook hands with the players from the opposing team at the end of their last match before they went to greet the Aunties. There was actual hand-to-hand contact. It was amazing.

Live events have started up again. Theaters are doing shows with actual people sitting in the audience. Though many theaters said they’d continue doing Zoom productions even after the pandemic, the first impulse is to get everyone back together and put on a live show. Zoom connected people in real time across the country, but nothing connects people like sitting together in the same room watching stories unfold on stage.

Traffic is bad again. Parking is junk. People are getting out. People are leaving home and doing things. Everyone hates heavy traffic, but there is something to celebrate seeing so many people out in the world. Staying at home is enjoyable when it is a choice, not the only option.

One of the most welcome sights was when youth soccer started up in public parks. All those springy kids wearing pastel jerseys, headbands and calf socks running around with masks on seemed sad at first, but they came to stand for the resilience that their generation will carry with them all of their days.

They learned to be patient by waiting out the worst days of the pandemic. They learned to be resilient by learning to pant through layers of fabric after running sprints and keeping eyes on the ball even though those masks always ride up too high and block part of one’s vision.

Masked shoppers walk at Ala Moana Shopping center during a decline in Covid-19 cases statewide. Feb. 25. 2022.
People may still wear masks to shop at the Ala Moana Shopping Center, but many aspects of life in Hawaii are starting to resemble pre-pandemic days. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

And all the things specific to Hawaii life that suddenly seemed fraught with danger during the pandemic – pupu platters, the hug and kiss that come with giving someone a lei, shabu shabu lunch with office friends, karaoke night with your once-a-year karaoke friends – they’re coming back like little green shoots sprouting up from the earth after the land has been cleared by fire.

March 6 will be the end of the Safe Access Oahu program, meaning no more having to show proof of vaccination and an ID card (or a negative Covid test) to dine in a restaurant — though honestly, that was a flimsy process at best, relying on harried front-of-house staff to quickly check handwritten cards while trying to limit the number of people queuing up at the door. It didn’t seem like a thorough screening, and besides, everyone had their masks off at the table and only had to put them on while walking to and from the restaurant entrance, which made the whole set-up seem performative and not scientific.

On March 25, Ige’s emergency proclamation ends, and Safe Travels, the program that requires incoming passengers to Hawaii to register their vaccine status or Covid test results to avoid a mandatory quarantine, will go away. There was comfort in thinking tourists were going to have to go through screening to vacation here, but the reality of local residents having to go through screening to come home was no fun at all.

As Lt. Gov. Josh Green has said, the pandemic won’t just turn off like a switch. The end won’t come like a crescendo. It will be less satisfying and more vague than that. It will happen gradually, and we will learn to live with the virus the way we live with the flu.

One of the biggest signs of the beginning of the end, though, is less observable and more palpable. It feels different. That dread is no longer hanging in the air. The eyes that look out above the still-required masks are no longer fearful. People are reaching toward a shared pupu platter without a second thought.

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