Hawaii’s indoor mask mandate will end at midnight on March 25, Gov. David Ige announced, marking the imminent end of major Covid restrictions across the islands as infections return to pre-omicron surge levels.

Hawaii was the last in the U.S. to maintain a statewide indoor mask mandate, despite the end of all county-level measures last week and updated guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that loosened masking recommendations for more than 90% of Americans.

Ige cited lower coronavirus case numbers and hospitalizations in recent weeks, saying “the trend is moving in the right direction.” Nearly 77% of the population also has been fully vaccinated, and just under 38% has received a booster shot.

“The fact that we continue to have among the lowest infection rates in the country and the lowest fatality rate in the country is really a testament to everyone being willing to sacrifice on behalf of the broader community,” Ige said Tuesday in a press conference. “So thank you so much to everyone, certainly looking forward to March 25th, when masks won’t be required anymore indoor.”

Mask required sign at the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.
Hawaii will lift its indoor mask mandate at midnight on March 25. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The mask mandate will end when his latest emergency declaration expires at midnight on March 25, Ige said. However, he stressed he was ready to reinstate the mask mandate in response to a future surge in cases and hospitalizations.

Ige also has said that he will at that time end the so-called Safe Travels program that requires travelers to show proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test upon arrival in the islands.

“We’ve seen previous progress wiped out by a delta or omicron variant,” Ige said. “We must not forget this, as we take the next steps in living with a pandemic that is not yet over.”

The omicron variant saw a lower rate of severe disease in proportion to record-high infection numbers. Reflecting this, the CDC has deemphasized case numbers to focus on hospitalization and hospital capacity in their current Covid-risk grading system, in which all of Hawaii’s counties are rated at the lowest tier.

The state Department of Health will also base future masking guidance on a range of factors, DOH director Libby Char said in the press conference.

“If we see a big spike in cases and we see the hospitals filling up again, if we see just in the community that there’s something going on or very, very significant outbreaks, those are all trends that we watch,” Char said. “We also watch what’s going in the West Coast and across the US.”

The DOH continues to recommend masking indoors if people are immunocompromised or near unvaccinated individuals, as well as in hospitals and group living settings such as prisons or jails, all of which are run by the state.

“We probably will be continuing mask requirements in those kinds of state facilities,” Ige said.

This cautious approach extends to Hawaii’s public schools.

The Hawaii Department of Education had announced earlier it would no longer require students and staff to wear masks outdoors, more than nine months after Ige ended a similar statewide outdoor mandate. State epidemiologist Sarah Kemble said in the press conference that the DOH will continue to recommend indoor masking in schools, for the “time being.”

The state reported a seven-day average of 148 cases Tuesday, decreasing 52% from the daily average of 307 cases recorded two weeks ago, according to the latest state numbers. There are currently 58 people hospitalized with Covid. No additional fatalities were reported, leaving the pandemic death toll at 1,354.

Ige is consulting with county mayors and state agencies whether “specific provisions” in the state’s emergency proclamation should be continued past March 25 but said people should expect that “all restrictions will be dropped.”

“We’re committed to moving the state forward and learning to live with COVID, and that also means learning to live with normal laws and statutes that are in place,” Ige said.

Ige’s decision follows months of speculation and debate on whether the governor should roll back Hawaii’s mask mandate.

The state implemented the mask mandate both indoors and outdoors in April 2020, about a month after the coronavirus began to ravage Hawaii. Ige lifted the outdoor mandate last spring but insisted that people should continue wearing face coverings indoors.

Marc Kenolio, owner of Iron Hawaiian Fitness in Kalihi, said it was “about time” the state made masking optional in gyms and other businesses.

“If people want to wear a mask, they can wear a mask – we’re all moving forward, and I don’t see why anyone should be forced to wear their mask anymore,” Kenolio said. “It should be more of a choice at this point than an actual mandate.”

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