As masks come off indoors today and domestic travelers are freely able to come to Hawaii, some pandemic directives will still linger at state airports, public schools and other venues that choose to keep the masking rules.
At 11:59 p.m. Friday, the state’s indoor mask requirement expired, along with rules requiring proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 tests for government employees and domestic travelers.
Gov. David Ige earlier this month announced the state would drop the mandates, citing lower hospitalization rates, falling case counts and the ability to better treat people with COVID-19.
Hawaii is the last state to lift its universal indoor mask mandate.
Local businesses say they will fall in line with the end of the mandates, though some will continue to require mask-wearing among their employees.
Pukalani Superette, for example, will allow customers to come in without a mask, as the store didn’t want to confuse customers by requiring a face covering when other places don’t, said Megan Nakashima, president, brand manager and director of community outreach for the locally owned market.
Nakashima said the mandate has been tough on employees who have been yelled at while trying to enforce the rules.
“We’ve heard that we may have been the strictest place regarding wearing a mask. We were doing what we considered was the responsible thing to do, but it was lonely,” she said.
As masks are lifted for customers, Nakashima said the store will require employees to continue to wear a mask for two weeks while on the store floor.
Employees are also welcome to wear a mask in back areas and beyond the required two weeks on the sales floor, she added.
“We’ve seen less illness circulate through our employees because of the masks,” Nakashima said. “We also believe that we were able to stop the spread of our positive COVID cases because all of our employees took mask-wearing seriously.”
Locally owned Island Grocery Depot is doing something similar by lifting mask-wearing rules for customers but keeping them in place for employees.
Nelson Okumura of Island Grocery Depot said Friday he wasn’t sure how long the company would extend the mandate for employees.
But he said the end of the mask mandate for customers alleviates the concern of confrontation with shoppers, which he said hasn’t happened at Island Grocery Depot’s stores in Kahului and Lahaina.
Large venues are also lifting their mask rules but encouraging guests and customers to exercise caution.
At the Maui Arts & Cultural Center, President and CEO Art Vento said on Friday, “The lifting of the mask mandate for indoor events will be welcome news to many of our patrons who attend shows in our theaters and visit our gallery.”
While wearing a mask will no longer be a requirement of entry into a MACC building, Vento said they still encourage ticket holders “to recognize that they will be coming into contact with hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of people as they decide whether to wear a mask or not.”
“It will be their own personal choice, and we will support that choice,” Vento said.
He added that the MACC invites feedback from patrons through regular surveys to get their opinions and suggestions.
The MACC’s box office has now transitioned to online sales only, with print-at-home or on-your-phone ticketing, Vento said. This increases safety “via a substantially touchless transaction process,” Vento said.
Assistance is still available via phone or email and walk-up windows are open before show time for assistance and will-call pickup.
At the Maui Ocean Center, the mask requirement is also lifted but “as COVID-19 still lingers throughout the globe, we will highly encourage the wearing of face masks, social distancing and the use of our antibacterial sanitizing stations throughout the park,” said Toni Rojas, chief marketing officer for the aquarium in Maalaea.
She said the recommendation applies to its guests, vendors and employees.
The center will continue to use its new online reservation system, which began in November.
“We were required and welcomed capacity limits during the depth of COVID-19, and have found that it has positively impacted the guest experience even further as the number of guests in the park at any given time has been spread more evenly throughout the day,” Rojas said. “Guest post evaluations and rankings are extremely positive.”
At Queen Ka’ahumanu Center, a spokesperson said that the mall encourages its tenants to follow their own corporate policy regarding the lifting of the state’s mandate.
“At this time, we’re unaware of which tenants will and won’t continue to keep indoor masking,” the spokesperson said.
The mall was considered an “outdoor space” so the mask mandate was lifted when the outdoor restrictions ended, the spokesperson added. Inside the enclosed food court dining area, masks were still mandated, but those rules will also be lifted today.
SCHOOLS, AIRPORTS STILL REQUIRE MASKS
Masking rules will continue past the end of the mandate for public schools and airports.
State Department of Education spokeswoman Nanea Kalani said this week that masks must be worn by everyone — students, staff, visitors and contracted service providers — at all Hawaii DOE school campuses or facilities when indoors.
Outdoor masking is optional, she added.
Masks still need to be worn at all times at state airports through April 18, the state Department of Transportation said in a news release this week. Use of a covering over one’s nose and mouth while on airport property has been extended though a security directive from the Transportation Security Administration, the news release said.
As the Safe Travels program sunsets for domestic travelers, screening areas used for the program will be returned to hold room configuration, said Marvin Moniz, state Department of Transportation airports district manager for the Maui District.
He added this will involve removal of the screening tables and stanchions at Kahului Airport.
Moniz said he expects travel to increase anyway due to the summer season, pointing out that visitor statistics from the Hawaii Tourism Authority show arrivals to Maui have more than doubled from the same time last year.
“We do expect that that trend will continue and are working with our airline and security partners to ensure sufficient resources to accommodate returning residents and visitors at Kahului Airport,” Moniz said.
LIFE AFTER THE MANDATES
As the mandates end, businesses are also seeing some relief and have hope for the future.
The Maui Ocean Center has been experiencing strong numbers during the current spring break period and is “very optimistic” about the summer months, particularly July, Rojas said.
Historically the center has experienced a decrease in visitation from after spring break to the start of summer, but some hospitality partners have shared they are seeing stronger reservations over this period.
“We are optimistic that is the case as we all strive to support our industry, workforce and both our county and state economy,” Rojas said.
Reflecting on the pandemic, Nakashima said it has been “a difficult two years” for the market, but they are “thankful to still be open” and hope that the lifting of the mandates will make it easier on the business.
Pukalani Superette saw its customer count drop from pre-pandemic to now and attributes it to the occupancy limits the store previously had to follow.
Okumura, who is president and CEO of Valley Isle Produce, doing business as VIP Foodservice and Island Grocery Depot stores, said his retail stores are doing OK and that it never went downhill during the pandemic.
But his wholesale business, which sells many products and food to hotels, is now picking up.
At the MACC, Vento is cautiously looking forward to the return of live events.
“We will remain informed and cautious as we all continue to move forward with positive momentum, embracing this endemic phase, while the MACC returns to providing live experiences that entertain and enlighten,” Vento said in an email. “We have said repeatedly over the past two years, ‘when it can happen safely on Maui, it will happen at the MACC.’ Well, that time has come.”
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at [email protected]