OWA President, Joseph Esser, spoke to the Star-Advertiser.
Anthony and Germaine Malabanan are finally set to celebrate their wedding this month after having the festivities twice delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. About 100 family and friends will gather along Paradise Cove, a stretch of tranquil coastline on Oahu’s Leeward coast, for the reception. But reminders of the virus will be omnipresent as security personnel, that the venue required the couple hire, make sure all their guests are wearing masks.
Germaine Malabanan said she understood that Hawaii is trying to open slowly. “But if everyone is vaccinated and we are all outside, I don’t see why we need the masks.”
The government restrictions also mean that two of their guests can’t attend because they aren’t vaccinated against COVID-19. While unvaccinated Oahu residents and visitors can enter ample social venues by showing proof of a negative COVID-19 test, the pre-testing allowance doesn’t apply to weddings under regulations imposed by the City and County of Honolulu.
The restrictions on weddings are among a complicated labyrinth of coronavirus-related rules that have governed life in Hawaii for the past 20 months under emergency edicts issued by Gov. David Ige and supplemented by the county mayors. The ever-changing terms have left many businesses and residents confused about the requirements and wondering when it will all end.
“From what I understand, Hawaii has one of the best, if not the best, turnouts for the vaccine, and we are still one of the most restricted and shut-down places,” said Joseph Esser, a wedding photographer and president of the Oahu Wedding Association. “So do our officials even believe that the vaccine is relevant or useful at this point? Or is it just trying to get every last drop out of the syringe into people’s arms?”
Esser said many wedding businesses on Oahu are “absolutely at the breaking point.”
At the beginning of the summer, Hawaii was set to drop all COVID-19 restrictions once 70% of the total population of about 1.4 million was fully vaccinated. The arrival of the highly contagious delta variant in July upended that goalpost as coronavirus cases soared and intensive care units began overflowing. But cases and related hospitalizations have fallen precipitously since early September. There were 20 COVID-19 patients in ICU beds statewide as of Friday, according to state data, accounting for just 6% of the state’s ICU capacity.
The state’s vaccination rate is also nearly unrivaled. Statewide, 94% of all eligible individuals, ages 12 and up, have received at least one shot, and 83% of the eligible population is fully vaccinated. Children ages 5 to 11 are expected to be able to get the vaccine as soon as Nov. 8.
Early treatment options for COVID-19 have also improved and are more accessible, including monoclonal antibodies that can reduce the risk of hospitalization by as much as 70%. An antiviral pill created by Merck is in the pipeline and has shown to reduce hospitalizations by about half when administered in newly diagnosed COVID-19 patients. Booster shots are also widely available for adults with a wide range of qualifying conditions, including everyone over the age of 65.
Despite all the progress, Ige has been reticent to set any definitive timeline or metrics for dropping restrictions, though he said in written responses to questions Friday that it hopefully will be toward the end of the year.
“We look at many factors before implementing or reducing restrictions,” Ige said in written responses provided through a spokeswoman. “The state did ask the health care industry for help in developing metrics to guide this action, and the response from the industry was that it is too complicated to be reduced to a single measurement.”
Ige’s latest emergency proclamation expires at the end of November but can be extended. Asked what the justification is for keeping it in place, Ige said that there’s still relatively high transmission of the virus within communities.
“Large-scale gatherings could easily and rapidly result in the kind of surge that could force us to reinstate restrictions, which we would like to avoid,” he said. “As always, our top priority is the health and safety of our community, and therefore lifting restrictions in a slow and measured way is the best way forward.”
Local epidemiologists have also expressed caution, warning that holiday gatherings could create a new surge and that immunity provided by vaccines has shown to wane over time.
While there was hope early on in the vaccine rollout that populations might be able to largely stamp out the virus by achieving herd immunity, the emphasis has shifted toward how to manage a virus that eventually becomes endemic, as is the seasonal flu.
DeWolfe Miller, an infectious disease epidemiologist and professor at the University of Hawaii, said we’re not at that stage yet with COVID- 19 where the population and virus have achieved an uneasy truce.
He said that we don’t yet know what endemicity looks like with COVID-19. “We don’t know what it is going to do,” he said.
Lt. Gov. Josh Green, who is also an emergency room doctor, also said that the virus isn’t at a point where it can be considered endemic or commonplace, because there continue to be surges, though that could change in 2022.
“Provided we don’t have a significant surge in the winter months, I think it will fall in the background,” said Green.
Chafing under rules
Endemic or not, there are signs of growing weariness when it comes to restrictions, with even health care leaders warning earlier this month of the related social and economic toll.
By the start of July, all states had fully reopened except for Hawaii. Some states began adding back restrictions once the delta variant prompted the latest surge, such as indoor mask requirements and vaccine passports. But Hawaii’s restrictions appear far more extensive.
Ige’s latest executive proclamation, 50 pages in length, delves into the minutiae. For instance, it bars passengers from riding maskless in a private car unless everyone is a member of the same household or vaccinated. Residents who share their car through a platform such as Turo must make sure that the renter isn’t subject to self-quarantine requirements. At restaurants and bars, patrons can’t mingle. And residents can’t have an indoor social gathering with more than 10 people.
County rules, which have typically been approved by the governor, add another layer, as do safety measures implemented by individual businesses.
Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi recently relaxed a host of restrictions beginning Wednesday, allowing more vaccinated people to gather at indoor and outdoor events, not all of which Ige agreed with. But the new rules have also created confusion.
Participants in outdoor marathons and triathlons won’t have to wear a mask, but masks are required at outdoor birthday parties, weddings and funerals. Food and beverages will be banned at football games, but movie theaters can continue to serve soda and popcorn. To attend an indoor or outdoor concert, one has to show they are fully vaccinated, but proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within the past 48 hours can get you into a bar or museum.
Blangiardi didn’t respond to an interview request, but his office has said that some of the differing restrictions relate to capacity.
Request for fewer limits
Maui Mayor Mike Victorino has asked Ige to expand the state’s limits on social gatherings in Maui County, allowing up to 50 people to gather inside, instead of 10, and allowing up to 200 people to gather outside, instead of 25, according to Terilynne Gorman, a spokeswoman for the mayor. Victorino is also asking the governor to allow for full capacity at bars, restaurants and gyms. Blangiardi is also pushing for more capacity at these businesses.
Ige had not announced a decision on the requests as of Friday.
Peter Yee, a Maui resident who was laid off from the car rental business early on in the pandemic and has yet to be hired back, said that the governor’s restrictions have been too hard on businesses and workers. Yee has administered a popular Facebook support group that has helped residents navigate a broken unemployment insurance system that left some residents waiting months to get aid. He said that the latest round of heightened restrictions over the summer hurt too many workers at at time when federal aid, and enhanced unemployment benefits, were no longer available.
Yee said Ige needs to govern more from the middle.
“People are exhausted from the restrictions,” he said. “That’s the vibe in Hawaii.”