Hawai´i is now the last state in the nation to maintain coronavirus-related restrictions, which have kept the islands from reopening completely, after Oregon and Washington eased emergency orders on Wednesday.
The state will move to Tier 5 of its reopening plan on Thursday, July 8, which will rollback travel restrictions on trans-Pacific arrivals who are vaccinated. It will also increase restaurant capacity from 50 to 75% and bump acceptable gathering sizes up from 10 to 25 people indoors and 25 to 75 people outdoors.
However, unvaccinated individuals will still be subject to mandatory quarantine when visiting Hawai´i unless they pass a COVID-19 test within 72 hours of departure.
“We do believe it is prudent at this time to maintain the restrictions, especially the mandatory quarantine for incoming travelers,” Governor David Ige said Thursday.
The governor continued on to say that Hawai´i will consider opening up entirely before hitting the previously stated 70% vaccination goal for residents. According to the most recent inoculation statistics from the Department of Health, 58% of the population is fully vaccinated, while 62.5% have begun their vaccine schedules.
The decision on if and when Hawai´i will accelerate its reopening plans is to be based on viral infections and hospitalization counts. However, the governor said the specific statistical thresholds in those areas that might constitute lifting restrictions have not yet been established.
A major factor holding the governor back from making that decision, he said, is the increase in spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19, which is described by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as a “variant of concern.” The strain now makes up more than 10% of all infections nationwide and is expected to become the dominant form of coronavirus in circulation across the US within a matter of weeks. Its presence is not yet ubiquitous in Hawai´i, though the governor said case counts related to the strain are on the rise and expected to continue that way.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has continued to urge even vaccinated individuals to wear masks indoors due to the ever-growing presence of the Delta variant, which is more transmissible than earlier forms of COVID-19 and typically presents with more intense, dangerous symptoms leading to a higher rate of hospitalization and mortality. Approved vaccinations in the US have proven effective against the variant and almost all new cases, regardless of strain, are occurring in unvaccinated individuals, the DOH said.
Currently, Hawai´i mandates that masks be worn indoors at all times by all individuals, regardless of vaccination status. Those seated with their parties in restaurants and bars remain the one exception to that rule. No one is required to wear face coverings in outdoor settings, though the state still encourages doing so when among large groups of people.
Industry Impacts of Restrictions Not Created Equal
The restaurant industry has been hit as hard as any by the COVID-19 pandemic, and some food establishments and bars say that easing rules on patron capacity doesn’t help them significantly as long as six-foot social distancing mandates remain in place.
“We did review the CDC guidance in regards to six feet of distancing in restaurants and food establishments, (which) the CDC continues to require,” Ige said. “We know that it is a challenge.”
The governor added his administration is working with the restaurant industry to establish other risk-mitigating methods besides capacity-restricting policies of social distancing, but also acknowledged no specific solutions have been found to date. He noted that clusters associated with dining out continue to show up across the Hawaiian Islands.
But the problems for restaurants extend well beyond issues with capacity, which some establishments aren’t complaining about at all. Mattson Davis, owner and operator of Magics Beach Grill in Kailua-Kona, said that even if he was allowed to open at full capacity tomorrow, there is no way his business would be able to do it.
“We don’t have the staff. Nobody has the staff,” explained Davis, adding that Hawai´i’s shortage of willing workers would prevent him from providing an acceptable level of service at full capacity.
As of May, the state’s unemployment rate led the nation at 8.1%, per the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. However, many former industry employees have left the restaurant business, citing too much work for too little pay. Others are choosing to remain unemployed because a combination of state benefits plus $300 weekly checks from the federal government provided through COVID-19 relief efforts continue to render unemployment more lucrative than carrying a job.
Individual states have the right to turn down that extra cash from Washington, and approximately half of them have already done so. The governor has indicated in previous interviews that Hawai´i has no plan to follow suit, asserting that the plus-up benefits are doing more good than harm to the state’s economy.
Davis said he expects a massive July 4th weekend after setting sales records the previous three weeks despite offering 40% less seating than he could pre-pandemic. The inconsistencies between state laws on the mainland and mandates that continue to exist in Hawai´i potentially pose more immediate problems for his staff than anything else.
“There’s confusion with the interface with the guests,” Davis said. “They tell you, ‘I’m from (this place) and these are the rules (there).’ But this is Hawai´i.”
Still, Davis added he is optimistic about the immediate future.
“I think we are really close on the next step. I’m excited that restrictions are slowing down on travel,” he said. “We’re almost there.”