Gov. David Ige issued a statewide mask-wearing mandate in August that allowed Hawaii’s four counties to fold in their own exemptions based on how they want to enforce the misdemeanor offense. That leeway has led to confusion, among visitors and residents, prompting members of the state House COVID-19 committee to rightly call for clearer language in the directive.
Further, there’s a sensible push, being led by Lt. Gov. Josh Green, for state law to update the mask mandate’s penalty from a possible misdemeanor conviction, which means jury trials and tying up the courts, to a quick-hit ticket or fine, similar to a parking ticket.
Such a switch would likely allow for more vigorous enforcement and prod better mask-wearing compliance than the current penalty. Green is on the mark in pointing out that Hawaii legislators should take up a simplified, across-the board statewide mandate as soon as next week, since the state Senate already is meeting next Wednesday in special session to consider confirming a state Supreme Court associate justice.
Due to Hawaii’s gradual increase in air travel from quarantine easing, the pandemic threat facing each county is now more similar than it was when Ige’s directive was issued several months ago.
Ige, meanwhile, has said such a move may be too complicated to carry out in a fast-turnaround of special session. The state Attorney General’s Office is now putting the proposal through normal paces, with the drafting of a bill that could go before legislators when they reconvene in regular session two-plus months from now.
But that’s too long to wait, given the looming public health threat of COVID-19 this holiday season.
This week, Oahu blew its first opportunity to move to the next phase of reopening, Tier 3, because the count of new cases has been too high in the past few weeks. And while Hawaii continues to rank among states with the lowest per capita trouble, the nationwide picture is grim.
Over the past week, there has been an average of more than 116,400 cases daily across the U.S., an increase of nearly 65% from the average just two weeks earlier. Pre-travel testing and other precautions are in place for air travel to and around the islands, but if more can be done to help prevent virus spread here and not slow economic recovery, we should act.
House Speaker Scott Saiki, co-chairman of the House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness, said this week that he and state Senate President Ron Kouchi have asked Ige to specify through an emergency proclamation that wearing masks is mandatory across all islands and that enforcement is up to each county.
Ige counters that both points are already spelled out in proclamation. But clearly, confusion persists, and must be cleared up. The prevalence of unmasked visitors and residents seen in public settings reveals a serious public relations problem. A state campaign stressing stronger, sustained messaging and signage is needed.
The wearing of a face covering in close-contact settings makes a potentially lifesaving statement. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s top brass has called masks “the most important, powerful public health tool we have” in battling COVID-19 — a tool that will remain important even after vaccines become available. For the foreseeable future, masks should be part of our everyday attire.
As for special-session enactment of a state law based on Green’s proposal: Saiki has said it would be “unwieldy” to require masks statewide through a bill — and simpler for Ige to issue a supplemental proclamation. Of course it’s simpler to jog in place. What we need is for the Legislature’s leadership to run forward and be more proactive.
This would require a brisk legislative process, with the Judiciary, county prosecutors, public defenders and others weighing in. A tall order but worth the push, given that it could help further shield our intertwined public and economic health from COVID-19 setbacks.