Calling it a “great day” in the island’s battle against COVID-19, more than 100 government officials and first responders gathered on the front lawn of Adelup Tuesday for Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero's special address on the government’s ongoing pandemic response efforts.
“Together, we have navigated through these pandemic times, flexing to the whim of where the wind takes us – without control of where we would end up. Collectively, we have been able to overcome every wave of this virus, every tsunami and typhoon it could throw at us. And this was only because each and every one of you. The people of Guam: today is your day,” Leon Guerrero said.
The group ended the event with a ceremonial removing of masks, commemorating the end of more than two years’ worth of public health mandates to minimize COVID-19 transmissions.
“Though many of us may choose to forgo using our masks, there are those of us who will continue to rely on its protection. And I encourage this personal responsibility,” Leon Guerrero said.
Masks no longer being mandatory does not make them “obsolete,” or that COVID-19 is no longer a threat to the island according to the governor.
“For everyone, the decision to use masks in spaces where they are not mandated is entirely a matter of individual choice,” she said.
Leon Guerrero initiated a month-long process to ease the island’s remaining COVID-19 public health restrictions back in late March.
The first set of health policies, the local outdoor mask mandate, crowd size limits and indoor social distancing requirements, were phased out two weeks ago, due to the island maintaining a low-risk of community spread based on federal metrics.
Since then, Leon Guerrero and her pandemic advisors have been monitoring data like new cases and hospitalizations, to see if these numbers support the removal of Guam’s indoor mask mandate, which was phased out as scheduled at 12:01 a.m. May 3.
“Today we are marking four weeks of a sustained low level (COVID-19) community risk. We have been regularly reporting low numbers of new cases every day, and there are currently only six people admitted to the hospitals for COVID. And none of them are receiving ICU level of care,” she said Tuesday.
Leon Guerrero maintained “there is no magic moment to lift restrictions,” and stressed that mandates were adjusted as “local health data improved, and with the advice of our medical experts.”
The governor has also eased policies like mandatory quarantine for incoming travelers, and increased social gathering limits as vaccinations increased and hospitalizations decreased.
“Charting our course to recovery, we will need to maintain, and continually enhance, the numerous tools we now have to protect ourselves and our loved ones from this god-awful COVID-19 – including tests and treatments, to vaccines and booster shots,” she said. “Because we have these tools, we can begin to get back to our more normal routines safely.”
The governor said her administration plans to build on the progress the island has made on controlling COVID-19, and will continue to focus on efforts to control and minimize the virus’ impacts to Guam.
“Let me emphasize, that as we lift this final mandate, we must bear in mind that the battle is not yet over. The world is still experiencing a global pandemic, but it is because of Guam’s progress, reduced case reports and low hospitalizations, that we can cautiously enter this transitional phase,” she said.
Masks, other policies still in use
The special address drew a crowd of members of the Guam National Guard, local law enforcement officers, and employees of financial agencies. The gathering of more than 100 people without masks hasn’t been allowed in years. The change didn’t go unnoticed.
“I’ve never been in a group this large. I feel like I’m on American Idol,” Art San Agustin, director of the Department of Public Health and Social Services, who also spoke during the special address.
Before the group removed their face coverings in a photo-op, San Agustin noted his “mild observation” about local appetites on wearing masks
“Today’s press (conference) is about the stopping of wearing masks indoors. But I’m encouraged that even as we say that is what’s happening today, we still see folks like myself, who are continuing to opt to wear their masks even outdoors,” he said, calling it an “encouraging” sight.
The governor’s executive order that rescinds her mask mandate still gives businesses and groups the ability to impose COVID-19 restrictions of their own on customers and attendees.
For instance, San Agustin noted that the Sinajana Senior Citizen Center is maintaining a number COVID-19 policies. Masks will continue to be worn, social distancing will be practiced, and temperature checks will be conducted upon entry, he said.
Sinajana Mayor Robert Hoffman later clarified with The Guam Daily Post that all mitigation measures were requested and approved from his village’s manåmko', and are not being imposed unilaterally by his office.
“They said, ‘It’s our center, our rules.’ So we are implementing whatever our seniors want, including wearing masks and using single-serving food items like butter, in order for them to feel safe,” he said.
‘Promising sign of the times’
Whatever the particular policies of a village’s senior citizen center, the services it provides to the island’s elderly is important, Lt. Gov. Josh Tenorio stressed.
“We know that they will find comfort in each other as they reconnect, get reestablished and join together in laughter,” he said, following a moment of silence for participants in the village-run senior programs who died while the pandemic kept the centers shuttered.
He also invited residents to take part in upcoming large-scale events this week, like the resumption of the Wednesday night market at CHamoru Village and a festival in celebration of Sirena and other Guam legends.
“These events are symbolic of more than just staple island festivities. They are a promising sign of the times. All of us around have been seeing these hints of change. It may not look like spring turning into summer, or fall into winter – but life certainly is blossoming and new,” Tenorio said.