Friday, at the stroke of midnight, Hawaii residents will be among the last in the nation to return to a reality unseen for two years, where air travel is no longer restricted by vaccination status and shoppers won’t need to search their purses and pockets for week-old masks every time they enter a restaurant or store.

Some will strip off their plastic and cloth veils with gusto, cursing the day their faces were ever barred from the ocean breeze. Others will clutch their coverings to their chest, loath to relinquish the last physical barrier against a deadly virus still running rampant.

The end of Hawaii’s blanket indoor mask mandate and the sunset of the state’s Safe Travels program – a vaccine-or-test requirement for airport arrivals hoping to avoid a mandatory quarantine – will close the curtain on the last of the major Covid-19 restrictions, meaning that life for many will return to what it was before the pandemic.

Governor David struggles with removing his mask during press conference held at August 19, 2020. The press conference announced 50 COVID-19 contact tracers coming online at the Hawaii Convention Center. August 19, 2020
Earlier this month Gov. David Ige announced the end of the indoor mask mandate, effective at midnight Friday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

But as Hawaii enters an era of “personal responsibility,” as Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi has repeatedly said, the end of mandates adds a layer of uncertainty to residents’ Covid routines.

Absent a universal rule, business owners and school administrators must now decide the masking policy for their respective domains. Students, for example, may head to class with mouths and noses covered, while their parents drive to work leaving their N95s at home.

What remains is a patchwork of masked and unmasked areas, with locals left to navigate where they must cover up and where they can smile with more than just their eyes.

“It’s confusing, definitely confusing, which is why I’ll keep my mask around my neck just to make sure,” said Punahou resident Janine Pollina.

Amid this ambiguity, Civil Beat drove down to Ala Moana Beach Park on a sunny Monday afternoon to gauge residents’ masking plans and test their knowledge of masking policies at local institutions once the mandate ends.

Watch this video to see how residents are feeling about the end of the mandate.

School Policies Diverge

As it turns out, locals were confused on where they would need to cover up after Friday, and for good reason, as no sector is completely free of lingering mask policies following the end of the mask rule.

Some of the most visible outliers are Hawaii’s public schools, which will keep their indoor mask policy, Department of Education spokeswoman Nanea Kalani confirmed, following state health department guidance updated Tuesday that “strongly recommends” masks be worn “correctly and consistently by all students and staff.”

Hilo High School sign fronting the school on the island of Hawaii reminds students to Wear A Mask, Wash your Hands and Social Distance during a surge in COVID-19 cases. September 24, 2020
Public schools eased their outdoor mask policies but retained the indoor mandate. Policies vary among private schools. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The DOE only recently eased its outdoor masking policy March 9, which had sparked petitions from frustrated parents that garnered hundreds of signatures.

At private schools, masking is hit or miss. The Kamehameha Schools Kapalama campus will keep requiring masks for the time being, a spokesman confirmed, while Iolani School students and staff will no longer need to cover up when they return from spring break on Monday.

“Our high vaccination rate, coupled with our weekly pool testing, enables us to remain in lockstep with the state’s lifting of mask restrictions for interior spaces,” said Iolani spokeswoman Michelle Hee in an email.

College students are not spared the confusion, with the University of Hawaii informing students and staff last week that the 10-campus system would only partially lift its indoor masking policy, keeping masks in classrooms, laboratories and “confined educational spaces” but freeing up lounges, eateries, libraries and other common areas.

The constant donning and offing of masks might be confusing for students, said UH Manoa graduate student Connor Kagamida, who shared he would likely keep his mask on outside the classroom for convenience.

“I’m okay with (the policy change) as long as people are smart about distancing,” Kagamida said. “I feel sometimes people have made a really big deal about wearing a mask in general, and this kind of mitigates those complaints a little bit.”

Hospitals Hold Off, Mixed Bag For Businesses

Beyond education, face masks will still be required on all public transportation and transportation hubs, including Hawaii airports and The Bus, after the federal Transportation Security Administration extended its security directive another month through April 18, a decision that triggered a bipartisan rebuke from the Senate that is unlikely to overcome a veto if it makes it to the president.

However, large indoor venues such as the state-run Hawaii Convention Center will no longer require face coverings, while Honolulu Department of Enterprise Services director Jerry Pupillo confirmed the city-run Neal S. Blaisdell Center will leave masking up to tenants.

And while it may seem obvious, don’t forget your mask when you go to the hospital or visit your loved one at a care home, said Healthcare Association of Hawaii CEO Hilton Raethel, who estimated that infection rates would need to “drop by half from where we are right now” before hospitals considered loosening mask rules.

Hawaii recorded a seven-day average of 78 cases Wednesday, a 37% decrease from the daily average of 123 cases reported two weeks ago, according to the state’s most recent numbers. Twenty-six patients are currently hospitalized with Covid, while the state logged five more deaths in the last week.

Murphy’s Bar and Grill staff member Pepe Diaz carries lunch items to awaiting guests.
A waiter at Murphy’s Bar and Grill carries lunch items to guests. A survey found one in five Hawaii small businesses planned to continue asking customers to mask up after the mandate ends. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Small businesses are harder to gauge, however. An informal survey of over 400 establishments by the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii found that 29% of businesses planned to maintain their mask policy for staff post-mandate, while 22% would also ask customers to mask up in store.

One in five businesses is not an insignificant number, and residents will find masked and mask-optional stores sharing neighborhoods and shopping centers.

Standing behind a bright orange placard emblazoned “NO MASK, NO SERVICE,” Tamura’s Fine Wine & Liquors manager Pomai Hironaka said the Kaimuki alcohol and poke purveyor would be removing its mask signage and making face coverings optional for patrons and employees.

Hironaka said he looked forward to not needing to confront belligerent customers reluctant to cover up.

“We usually have maybe one altercation a day. It happens more often than you think,” he said. “We did have one person today and I kind of just gave up on it.”

Just one block up Waialae Avenue sits A&A Nail Salon, where nail technician Linh Nguyen files away at her client’s cuticles. Both staff and patrons will keep masking after Friday, she said, the cloying scent of polish remover wafting from her workstation.

“Mask or no mask, same thing, because it’s been two years and the customers are used to it,” Nguyen said. “Some people come in my store and look at all the people wearing their masks and feel happy, and I feel happy too.”

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