Lt. Gov. Josh Green believes that COVID-19 restrictions could be eased in about two to four weeks and said it is “appropriate” that Mayor Michael Victorino is allowing spectators at some outdoor sports.
“I think in two weeks, the numbers will be sufficiently low,” Green said Tuesday morning while appearing on the Maui Chamber of Commerce’s “Business Matters” radio show. “We’ll probably have an average case count of 125 to 150 a day (in the state), which is so much lower from where we peaked at 850 and our positivity rate will be well under 3 percent, which is pretty much considered the national standard for good response. Some people are even OK with 5 percent.
“But under 3 percent, there is pretty much not that much transmission and Maui is doing extremely well. They are in the 2 percent range, right now, as of today.”
As of Tuesday, Maui County had the lowest COVID-19 test positivity rate in the state at 2.2 percent, while Hawaii County had the highest positivity rate in the state at 5.3 percent.
Although Green said Hawaii could allow an ease of restrictions in about two weeks, he said Gov. David Ige “is somewhat conservative in this area” and said it was “traumatic” when the state got up to 448 COVID-19 hospitalizations on Sept. 3. The spike in hospitalizations that followed the surge of the delta variant in August and September led officials to express concerns about having to ration health care, which Green said he is against.
“Because of that, I think (Ige) is super risk averse and doesn’t want to risk any slippage, and I never like to predict where the governor will go cause I don’t have the capacity to make these decisions, of course, as a lieutenant governor,” said Green.
“But two weeks is probably a safe enough place to reduce restrictions and relax things slightly as long as people are still pretty smart.
“There is no reason at all right now, not to be allowing (spectators at) sports outdoors. That was an appropriate move by Mayor Victorino,” Green added. “There is no question that’s OK to be outdoors. Keep a little social distance between yourself and others, but watching kids’ soccer matches or football matches is fine, completely fine.”
Despite public pressure and even support from Green and other lawmakers, Ige is not allowing fans in the stands at University of Hawaii home football games.
On Friday, Ige announced he was extending his executive order for another two months, which includes maintaining the statewide indoor mask mandate and keeping the Safe Travels program the same, saying the state wasn’t out of the woods yet despite declining case in recent weeks.
Victorino also said on Friday that Ige had denied all of his requests regarding lifting some COVID-19 restrictions, but the mayor said he would allow spectators to safely attend children’s games despite Ige’s denial.
The rules apply to youth sporting events not sanctioned by the state Department of Education, Victorino said.
Green said that as far as removing larger restrictions such as gathering sizes or travel rules, those will “come later.”
“I don’t think there is any reason to rush getting rid of the Safe Travels program. That served us well, in general,” Green said. “It’s not perfect but has served us well. That will probably stay on until the end of the year.”
He said the question remains over when the state will welcome back visitors, which he said the “governor needs to signal that soon.”
On Aug. 23, Ige asked people to reduce travel to Hawaii as the delta variant spread across the state and hospitals filled up. Hotels and tourism-related business have reported declines since the announcement.
Green said it could be a “robust” November and December and he thinks 2022 “is going to be huge economically for us.”
He said people will play catch up from the pandemic and visitors will want to come to Hawaii.
As the state pushes toward recovery, government agencies and local counties have started requiring tougher mandates, requiring workers to be vaccinated or regularly tested and asking customers to prove vaccination to enter certain businesses.
When asked by Chamber President Pamela Tumpap if the state and the county should help workers and businesses pay for staff getting tested for COVID-19 due to the mandates, Green said he supports the move, which could be paid for by using CARES Act funding.
Ige clarified Friday that employers are not required to pay for COVID-19 testing for employees who are unvaccinated and choose to undergo regular testing instead.
While some businesses and restaurants have been supportive, others have struggled with the new rules, having to pivot to outdoor dining and screening customers for vaccination status.
Sheryl Matsuoka, executive director of the Hawaii Restaurant Association, said that if there were ever a time when restaurants needed community support, “it’s now.”
“Without international travelers and domestic travelers it has been difficult, really difficult,” said Matsuoka, who also appeared on the radio show Tuesday.
She added that she has heard places are “pretty empty,” including areas in Lahaina.
Tumpap added that months back, locals had a hard time getting into restaurants due to visitors, but now may be a time to go back and eat at their favorite places.
Comparing September 2019 to September of this year, restaurant sales are down 40 to 50 percent, and some smaller restaurants and businesses are even reporting they are losing up to 70 percent in sales, Matsuoka said.
What also hurts is that international visitors, including those from Asia and even Canada, have not returned at the same levels as before. When domestic travelers go back home during the shoulder months of September and October, Matsuoka said the international visitors usually helped out.
She said the “perfect storm” of events has hampered the restaurant industry, with the absence of international visitors as well as the pandemic and the mandates.
Some restaurant workers have even gone through deescalation training, as they need to enforce the mandates with sometimes unwilling guests, Matsuoka said. Some guests come from states where there is no mask mandate or may be confused by different mandates in Hawaii’s four counties, she said.
Restaurants are trying to pay rent and keep their employees, said Matsuoka, who suggested that residents buy gift cards to restaurants, do takeout and anything else they can to help.
“You don’t want to see them close,” she said.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.