Big Island Coronavirus Updates

Opinions Vary on Whether State Should Lift Indoor Mask Mandate

By Nathan Christophel
March 7, 2022, 5:00 PM HST
* Updated March 7, 4:47 PM
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To mask or not to mask. That is the million-dollar question right now as the state, and the Big Island, get closer to a new post-pandemic norm. But the answer isn’t as simple as some might think.

Koa Robarts, a 20-year-old from Hilo, works while masked Friday, March 4, in the kitchen of a Hilo restaurant. He thinks it’s time for the state’s indoor mask mandate to be lifted. (Photo by Nathan Christophel)

Opinions vary about the state’s indoor mask mandate, not just among the public but also government officials. The mandate remains in effect despite other restrictions at the county level being lifted and Gov. David Ige’s announcement that the Safe Travels program and several other mandates will end March 25.

Hawai‘i is the only state in the nation that hasn’t announced an end to or plans to lift its mask mandate.

However, there seems to be a couple of common themes to how people view the decision to lift the mandate or not, and they boil down to personal responsibility and choice.

Zakkary Silva-Sampaio, a driver for Daniel’s Taxi in Hilo, shuttles hundreds of customers a week in the close quarters of a Honda Civic. The mandate requires him and his customers to wear masks while they are in the car together, meaning he’s forced to wear a mask sometimes for up to eight hours a day.

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He told Big Island Now that the opinions of his customers are all over the place.

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“Most people who talk to me about the mask mandate are going along with it because either that’s what the law is or because they understand that it’s all part of how to stop the spread (of COVID-19),” said Silva-Sampaio. “Some of them have expressed that, even if the mandate is lifted, they would still wear the mask out in public. Others would wear it only if they were sick. There are also some who would stop wearing the mask altogether if the mandate was lifted.”

He said not many of the customers who have discussed the mandate with him have said otherwise.

“As far as folks who think we shouldn’t wear masks, I think I’ve only met three,” Silva-Sampaio said. “There are not that many.”

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Tourists or people who have visited the mainland recently whom he’s spoken with find it odd that Hawai‘i still has a mask mandate; yet, there are some who think Hawai’i has the pandemic under better control because of restrictions such as the mask mandate, he said.

Ige is standing firm on his decision to keep the mandate in place for now.

The governor said Friday, March 4, during an interview on the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s “Spotlight Hawai’i” program that while case counts and hospitalizations because of COVID continue to decline, the state is still averaging 200 or more cases a day. And even with new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most of Hawai‘i, except the Big Island, remains in the medium level of COVID activity.

“So we’re not out of the woods, but clearly, we see things improving,” Ige said.

The governor said his administration is looking at several metrics to make decisions about lifting restrictions. The state also is keeping an eye on the number of COVID cases in schools, the general prevalence of the virus in the state and how the decision by the counties to lift all of their restrictions could impact case numbers.

Ige is anticipating an increase in COVID activity following the relaxing of county restrictions.

“We want to see what the impact of the counties dropping their restrictions would be on the case counts that we’re seeing,” the governor said.

He added later in the interview that “we do know that masks work” when it comes to stopping the spread of the virus.

“We are just looking at the virus activity across all of those metrics to make decisions about the overall statewide masking,” Ige said.

But some members of the public think it’s time that masks are no longer a requirement.

“At this point, I feel it should just be by choice if you wanna wear it indoors,” Aaries Judd-Sombrio of Hilo told Big Island Now via Facebook Messenger.

He wears a mask for at least eight hours a day, five days a week because of his job. Since the indoor mask mandate began, he gets light-headed often while wearing a mask so long. And while he’s been told by many people to “just pull it down for a moment to breathe,” that doesn’t make it any better.

“Breathing maskless for a few seconds doesn’t really help when it has to come right back on,” said Judd-Sombrio.

Koa Robarts, a 20-year-old from Hilo who works in the kitchen of a local restaurant and wears a mask for about 8-9 hours a day, thinks the mandate is no longer needed.

“This whole thing, pretty much, is coming to an end already,” Robarts told Big Island Now. “I think it’s about time they release it. All the stores are opening up again, our economy is growing again; shouldn’t the mask situation go with it?”

His co-worker, 32-year-old Casey Quiamboa of Hilo, agreed, adding it’s overdue to be changed back to whatever people want to do as far as their own self interest.

“If you’re vaccinated and you have a boost, you should be able to make that decision for yourself,” said Quiamboa, who wears a mask sometimes up to 12 hours a day depending on his work schedule.

He said because of the mandate many cooks and chefs are forced to wear a mask in kitchens that can get up to 400 degrees inside.

“So having these masks is just really hard on the working class, especially in the service industry,” Quiamboa said.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green, a Big Island physician, commented in a Friday, March 4, story for O‘ahu TV news outlet KITV4 that he, too, would like to see the governor lift the mandate.

“We got to get to the end of this,” Green said in the story. “I’m hoping that we get off the mandate on or before (March 25).”

Others are not as keen on lifting the mandate.

“No, I do not enjoy masking up, but I’d still rather be diligent than possibly harm my neighbors or any of the visitors to our beautiful island,” Christopher McGuire of Hawaiian Paradise Park told Big Island Now via Facebook Messenger. “Ever since I had the blessing of being able to move here and call Hawai’i my home, I have been shown nothing but aloha and respect from the local community. It is my kuleana to give the same respect back to everyone on our precious island. You never know what the person next to you is dealing with.”

An employee at Mo’oheau Bus Terminal in downtown Hilo wears a mask Friday, March 4, as she works. (Photo by Nathan Christophel)

The 40-year-old who owns and operates a food truck in East Hawai‘i and wears a mask sometimes for 13 or more hours a day, said he has multiple reasons why he doesn’t mind the mask mandate to remain in place, chiefly his three young children.

His twin sons were born in April 2020, shortly after many of the state’s restrictions were put in place, including the mask mandate. The younger of the two boys did not have fully functioning lungs when he was born and had to be flown to O‘ahu for medical treatment.

“I followed his helicopter on the first available Hawaiian Airlines flight,” said McGuire. “I was not allowed to ride with him due to COVID and the world not knowing much of the science behind it yet. I was isolated to a small section of my floor and wore a mask 24 hours a day for nearly two weeks when it was all said and done. While he is very healthy and strong now, I still think of it every single day.”

He said he worries for his children when it comes to COVID.

“My oldest is now 5 and vaxxed, so there is relief there, but what about my twins?” McGuire asked.

Evan Kelsom, a 46-year-old from Hilo, also worries about his keiki. He’d like the mandate to stick around because his three children would be safer. One of his children is just 3 years old and therefore not eligible for a vaccine.

Kristina Anderson of South Kona is a professional writer and also a substitute teacher. She works with all grade levels, including elementary-age keiki.

“We still work with kids at the elementary level who cannot be vaxxed, so the mask mandate feels necessary there,” Anderson told Big Island Now via Facebook Messenger.

She thinks the mask mandate has saved the state a lot of misery.

“It’s been especially protective for front-line workers such as teachers, food service workers, health care workers and grocery store workers,” said Anderson. “I still think of the brave folks who worked in supermarkets when everything else was closed!”

She added that masks are part of life now, and after two years, it will be difficult to start taking them off. She’s visiting California right now and said no store workers there seem to be wearing masks but about half of residents still do.

“It’s still weird to walk in a place and see no masks,” Anderson said. “It will be quite the adjustment taking them off, but welcomed! However, if there is a new variant or resurgence, we have to be ready to put them on.”

Hope Pualani McKeen, a 41-year-old from Hilo, said wearing a mask doesn’t bother her at all. She wears a mask for about seven hours a day while working and doing other activities. She said the mask mandate is a great way to keep the spread of all illnesses down.

“To me, it’s not hard or that much of an inconvenience to put a mask on, so I wear it,” McKeen told Big Island Now, adding that she even chants and dances hula with a mask on. “It gets a little sweaty at times, but for the most part it doesn’t bother me at all. I got masks that (fit) my face good, so I rarely have to touch it, too.”

Kawika Kelsom also isn’t bothered by having to wear a mask. The 21-year-old from Hilo said it’s not like the pandemic is done, and he will continue to wear a mask with or without a mandate.

“We don’t need a law to actually make us use it,” he told Big Island Now, adding people should already know masks offer protection from the virus.

Silva-Sampaio said at first, he could see why a mandate might have been necessary even though he would have liked to allow people to have the freedom to handle the virus as they saw fit.

“However, as it is said, ‘Your freedom to swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose,'” he said. “The right for people to choose to not take measures to reduce the spread of the virus conflicts with the rights of people’s life, safety and good health.”

Now that COVID has run its course, he thinks people have had time to get the vaccine or have caught the virus and the risk of death or serious treatment seems to be declining, so the situation has gotten to a point where it no longer justifies compromising people’s right to choose.

“There are no mandates for mask usage and vaccines during flu season, even though some people are at risk,” Silva-Sampaio said. “It’s making less and less sense to continue to treat COVID as we have.”

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel has more than 20 years of experience in journalism, starting out as a reporter and working his way up to become a copy editor and page designer, most recently at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo.
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