New restrictions on social gatherings take effect on Oahu in bid to rein in COVID-19 surge

Updated: Aug. 20, 2020 at 5:38 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - New restrictions aimed at further reducing gatherings and taking other steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on Oahu are now in effect.

But there’s some confusion about what’s actually changed.

The governor signed the new rules Wednesday in place of a broad shutdown, saying his administration is focused on stopping the spread of coronavirus by targeting “unstructured social gatherings.”

Under the new order:

  • “Social gatherings of any type” are banned indoors and outdoors. By social gathering, the city means any event that brings together people from multiple households. Earlier this week, the mayor had a different definition for social gatherings, saying they were any group larger than five.
  • Groups at public and private outdoor attractions (like zoos and water parks) are limited to no more than five people. If the group is larger, the attraction must ensure the groups socially distance.
  • Group dining is also limited to no more than five people.
  • The order does not ban singing and wind instruments in spiritual services, as the mayor previously indicated. Rather, it includes rules about protections that need to be in place around those activities.
  • Employers are being urged to allow people to work at home if possible but are not required to. For those who can’t work at home, employers are being asked to stagger scheduled.

The new restrictions, as part of the so-called “Act Now Honolulu: No Social Gatherings” order, will remain in place for at least 28 days. The order also extends the closures of beaches, parks and bars on Oahu.

[Read more: Confused about the city’s new COVID-19 restrictions? Here’s the full order]

But restaurants, malls, retailers, spiritual organizations, gyms, and personal services are allowed to continue operating as long as they “police” their customers or patrons to ensure they wear masks.

The state’s plan to reopen the tourism industry with a traveler testing program has also been delayed again — until Oct. 1. Hawaii had hoped to launch it Sept. 1, after initially planning to kick it off in August.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said earlier this week the new restrictions represent a “scalpel” approach rather than a “hammer,” and bristled at a reporter’s question about why gyms are open but parks are closed.

“What we’ve done is try to control unregulated outdoor gatherings,” Caldwell said.

“We’re trying to take a bright line on these things. We believe that holding this line is important in reducing the number of cases on Oahu.”

Some onlookers, though, called the new mandates more half-measures — and not nearly enough to tackle the daily, triple-digit increases in COVID-19 infections threatening to overwhelm Oahu’s hospitals.

In August alone, the state has seen more than 3,000 new infections.

Meanwhile, nearly 190 people with COVID-19 are hospitalized statewide. Of those, at least 33 people are in intensive care and 20 are on ventilators.

Previously, Lt. Gov. Josh Green had identified 3,000 active infections as the “trigger” for a broad shutdown. The state blew through that metric last week.

Members of a state House committee on COVID-19 also advocated for a broad shutdown this week, saying in the absence of Health Department data that could pinpoint how (and where) people are getting sick a “sledgehammer” is needed to dramatically reduce the number of new infections.

While Hawaii was still under a strict lockdown, the state developed a five-phase, color-coded reopening plan, ranging from the strictest lockdown — “stay at home” — to a “new normal” with no disruption.

Hawaii is currently in the yellow “act with care” phase, which indicates minor disruption.

Moving to the orange “safer at home” phase would mean restrictions on a host of indoor gathering places, including churches, gyms, bars, museums and theaters and personal services, such as hairdressers.

The debate about how to address the uncontrolled spread of coronavirus comes as the state scrambles to bolster its woefully inadequate contact tracer program and warns that testing capacity is also under stress.

In recent weeks, the state has seen huge clusters of COVID-19 emerge linked to Hawaii’s largest jail, a homeless shelter in Iwilei and in the Pacific Islander community. The state has said there are also ongoing outbreaks associated with bars, gyms and private gatherings, including funeral and religious services.

But backing up those assertions with data has been a problem area.

The state Health Department releases little more daily than the total number of new cases, total number of deaths, which island new infections are located and how many people have been released from isolation.

Legislators and policymakers have called on the agency to release more data that could inform strategic initiatives, such as how someone was exposed to the virus or whether they were wearing a mask.

This story will be updated.

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