Hawaii became the final state in the nation Saturday to remove its indoor masking requirement as the omicron surge recedes.
The state also suspended its Safe Travels program, allowing American travelers to enter without submitting proof of vaccination or the results of an approved coronavirus test for the first time since the pandemic began.
In keeping with the national trend, Hawaii’s hospitalizations and deaths have subsided to a fraction of last winter’s peak. And the state outstrips many others in fully vaccinating at least 78% of its population.
The rollbacks have been widely applauded within Hawaii’s recovering tourism industry — the state’s largest economic driver — especially since many visitors from the U.S. mainland have become accustomed to more lax masking requirements at home.
Visitor arrivals to Hawaii remain significantly below pre-pandemic levels. Figures released by the state’s Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism this month show that the total number of visitors to Hawaii in 2021 was about 65% of the 2019 total and that month-by-month visitor spending has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels.
“The news has been met with joyful anticipation by our guests and colleagues,” said Charles Head, the general manager of the Fairmont Orchid luxury resort on the Big Island, where an overnight stay can cost $1,000 or more.
Restaurateurs expressed similar sentiments. “We are ready to burn the masks and we are very excited,” said Tony Reed, the manager of Duke’s Waikiki, a popular open-air restaurant in Honolulu. “It’s hard to police the guests because we’re selling an experience, right? So, having to hold somebody back and say, ‘no, you can’t do that,’ it breaks a lot of our hearts and it’s actually a thorn in our side that just would not go away.”
However, some Hawaii residents object to the changes. “I was really hoping this would last longer in order for the government to take it seriously to diversify the economy,” Melissa Millwood, a resident of Mililani, a suburban area in central Oahu, said. “If we were forced to live without tourism for a little bit longer, I think the government would have been forced to invest in agriculture and other things and diversify our economy so we wouldn’t be subject to things like this. We would be more resilient.”
Many residents, including Millwood, say they will continue to wear masks in public indoor spaces, even though it is no longer required by law. And many businesses, government departments and organizations, including most schools and the state’s 1st Circuit courts, on Oahu, will keep their mask requirements. Some cite the cultural respect for elders and the desire to protect them in a state where, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 1 in 5 people live in multigenerational homes.
Mask wearing has been widely accepted across the state, in part because of a strong Asian influence that normalized masks after the SARS outbreak that began in China in 2003. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, it was not uncommon to spot mask wearers in crowded public spaces.
Tina Alcain, a teacher at Konawaena High School on the Big Island, welcomed the new freedoms cautiously, saying, “You’ve got to start somewhere,” and noting that “we haven’t had a case — knock on wood, knock on everything — for months at school.” But she also said she would continue to wear her mask indoors outside of school, mostly to protect her 97-year-old grandmother. “It’s become second nature,” Alcain said, “and I think I will just continue to do it until it becomes just like the everyday flu.”
Even some public-facing tourism workers say they will continue to wear masks after the mandate lifts. “More than seeing masking go, I’m disappointed to see the Safe Travels program go because now anybody can come to Hawaii,” says Jim Stauff, 68, a retail manager at a dive shop in Kailua-Kona on the Big Island. “People seem to think they’re done with COVID, but COVID isn’t done.”
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