On track to reach a 60 percent vaccination rate by next month, Hawaii will begin to allow domestic travelers who have been fully vaccinated in the U.S. to bypass pre-travel testing and quarantine starting July 8.
Gov. David Ige, who has been rolling back restrictions as COVID-19 cases stabilize across the islands, announced the new policy during a news conference with three of the county mayors on Thursday.
“I know that this change has been widely anticipated and it will make it easier for residents to return home and for visitors to come and enjoy our islands,” Ige said.
Travelers will need to upload their vaccination records into the Safe Travels system and bring a hard copy of their vaccination record with them on their trip to Hawaii.
Also starting July 8, informal social gatherings will be allowed to expand to 25 people indoors and 75 people outdoors, while restaurants will be able to increase capacity to 75 percent, also with maximum group sizes of 25 indoors and 75 outdoors. State gathering limits will not impact organized gatherings like weddings, which the counties can regulate.
Some restaurants, however, may not be able to accommodate 75 percent of their capacity given the required physical distancing between tables. Ige said that the state is continuing to work with the restaurant industry and looking to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, and will evaluate whether it can drop other restrictions as needed.
Even if Hawaii doesn’t reach a 60 percent vaccination rate by July 8, the governor and mayors agreed that setting a specific date would help businesses plan and prepare for the rule changes, Ige explained.
Mayor Michael Victorino said during the news conference that he was “very confident that we will be there” by July 8.
“Maui County is lagging right now, and I’ll be very honest, we’re upping our game in respects to vaccination,” Victorino said. “We’re hoping that with all of that messaging that people will see the light, understand the importance and how they protect themselves, their families, but how we can still reopen our economy and get back to some normalcy we all so richly deserve and are looking forward to.”
As of Thursday, 57 percent of the total population statewide had completed the vaccination process, which includes federal agency doses. Kauai County continued to lead the state with 55 percent of the total population fully vaccinated, followed by Honolulu County at 50 percent, Hawaii County at 49 percent and Maui County at 48 percent. County breakdowns do not include federal agency doses, putting the rates lower than the state’s overall progress.
Ige said that for the sake of “simple targets,” decisions would be made based on the statewide rate because it includes the federal data.
As vaccination rates rise, the governor has been lifting restrictions, including the outdoor mask mandate and pre-travel testing requirements for interisland travelers.
Travel has also made a rapid comeback as eager vaccinated residents book trips off island for the first time in months and visitors itching to travel surge back, especially to Maui, which has had lower COVID-19 rates than Oahu, typically the busiest tourism market.
“It has taxed some of our infrastructure and other areas, so it is concerning,” Victorino said. “It’s also taxing a lot of our resources, the road to Hana. . . . So yes, it’s been a mixed bag of good and not so good. So we’re working through all of this. But I’m happy with the pace we are. Maybe a little bit too fast for Maui, I would say.”
With the arrival of the faster-spreading Delta variant, which has been detected in four cases so far — three on Oahu and one on Hawaii island — all but one of which have been connected to travel, Ige said that the state is still monitoring vaccination rates as it drops restrictions.
“We are all very much concerned about the spread of variants in our community, especially in groups of people who have not been vaccinated,” the governor said. “We are seeing that people who are not vaccinated continue to be vulnerable to serious illness and hospitalization and even death.”
He pointed out that cases have been trending down in recent weeks, and health officials expect this to continue. However, should there be “a sustained spike” in cases, the state could consider further action, Ige said.
He added that health officials and the county mayors have discussed the vaccination thresholds and are still comfortable with removing all restrictions once the state reaches a 70 percent vaccination rate. At that point, the Safe Travels program will end and social gatherings will no longer be restricted. Restaurants will continue to be regulated by the state Department of Health, which may establish new, permanent rules in light of the pandemic.
“Should there be an outbreak and should we see high disease counts for a sustained period of time, then, if necessary, we would look at what restrictions would we need to put in place in order to effectively control that outbreak,” Ige said.
* Colleen Uechi can be reached at [email protected]