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Crowd sizes limited in Honolulu as omicron rises in islands

January 5, 2022 GMT

HONOLULU (AP) — Organizers of large indoor events on Hawaii’s most populous island must once again abide by crowd size restrictions as the omicron variant spreads throughout the state.

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi said at a news conference Wednesday that any indoor gathering with more than 1,000 people will be subject to a 50% capacity rule.

Blangiardi said the new rule would go into effect Monday and remain for at least three weeks.

Hawaii’s coronavirus case count skyrocketed in December, going from an average of about 100 cases per day at the start of the month to a pandemic-high, single-day record of nearly 3,500 cases at year’s end. The vast majority of new cases have been detected on Oahu.

Blangiardi recently allowed bars and large indoor events to resume operations without crowd size or social distancing restrictions. Most restrictions across the state were lifted at the beginning of December, just days before the first confirmed Hawaii omicron variant case was detected.

Blangiardi has been promoting personal responsibility as the best way through the omicron surge.

“We have adapted as a people,” Blangiardi said Wednesday. “And for those critics who push back on my statements about personal responsibility, all I can say is get with the program. Because that’s what this is about.”

He said that more restrictions would be “crippling” to the overall wellbeing of commerce and business, much of which is linked to tourism in Hawaii and has taken a hit amid the decline in pandemic travel.

“Do not mistake the fact that we have not come out with a long list of restrictions, that we’re doing nothing,” he said. “We do keep the public, and the health and welfare of the public, topmost in our mind.”

Hospital and other health officials joined the mayor and said people need to take common sense measures, such as getting vaccinated, wearing masks and staying away from crowds, to slow the spread of disease.

They said booster shots are a critical component of navigating the surge in omicron cases. Hawaii has a relatively high vaccination rate but a much lower rate of booster shots.

“The data are very, very clear, you must be vaccinated and you must have boosters,” said Jill Hoggard Green, the Queen’s Health Systems president and CEO.

Blangiardi said that boosters will not be required for Oahu businesses that use a vaccination and testing program that allows them to operate at full capacity. People going to Oahu restaurants, bars, theaters and other businesses where people gather without masks must show proof of vaccination or a recent COVID-19 test to get in.

While hospitalizations are up, rates are not spiking like they did during the delta variant surge last year, officials said.

“Typically respiratory pandemics become endemic, meaning that we learn to live with them or coexist with these infections, about the third year, and so this is now the third year,” said Hawaii Medical Service Association president Dr. Mark Mugiishi.

“It’s mutating and it’s becoming less novel, it’s not as new to the human immune system because more people are exposed or infected, so we can get used to it — in future iterations of this virus, our body will remember and know how to fight it,” Mugiishi said. “That plus vaccinations is really a big help.”

The health officials said testing is important and they are working to increase capacity to meet demand.

Hawaii had more than 700,000 travelers in December, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority. The state requires travelers to be vaccinated, though not boosted, or provide a negative coronavirus test taken within 72 hours before arrival to avoid quarantine.

The U.S. now requires all international travelers to test within 24 hours of their trip, regardless of nationality or vaccination status.

Hawaii’s public schools resumed in-person classes after returning from winter break this week. The University of Hawaii opted to move most classes online for the start of the semester.

Some private schools have implemented strict testing programs. Public school students were not required to test prior to returning.