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(Tribune News Service) — Tens of thousands of Hawaii residents vaccinated against COVID-19 are no longer required to wear masks for the most part — as long as they remain on federal Department of Defense installations.

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a relaxation of mask-wearing on Thursday, the Pentagon quickly followed suit.

"In support of updated (CDC) guidelines released this afternoon ... fully vaccinated DOD personnel who are at least two weeks beyond their final dose are no longer required to wear a mask indoors or outdoors at DOD facilities, " Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks wrote in a memo.

Personnel who are not fully vaccinated should continue to follow Pentagon mask guidance — including continuing to wear masks indoors, Hicks said.

U.S. Indo-Pacific Command on Oahu echoed that language Monday in a mask policy update.

The CDC pronouncement has brought a cascading sense of new freedom, confusion and concern on base at the same time that Gov. David Ige has rejected the new no-mask policy off base and within the greater Hawaii population.

"When not on a DOD facility, all DOD personnel, whether fully vaccinated or not, will continue to strictly follow state and local regulations, including local business and workplace guidance, " Indo-Pacific Command said. "We respect our strong relationship and close cooperation with the state of Hawaii throughout this pandemic."

On Oahu the islands of military installations that now provide the freedom of maskless life are not insignificant. Major Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and joint commands are located here.

The state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism reports there are about 41,300 active-duty personnel, 60,600 dependents and nearly 20,000 civilian employees in Hawaii.

Greater clarity is being sought following the emergence of the new CDC policy — and not just for the military. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Honolulu is among federal entities looking for more guidance.

Military members took to social media in the days since the policy changes have rolled out through successive layers of command to try to figure out what's now allowed and what's not.

Daphne Centeno posted several days ago to the U.S. Army Garrison Hawaii Facebook page, "I figured I was just going to sit at the PX (post exchange) and watch what happens to the first batch of free faces so I would know if it's legit or not."

"Serious question but the guidance provided doesn't state any mask exceptions regarding (physical therapy), so why are there groups of soldiers running on base every morning maskless? Are we actually allowed to run or walk outside without a mask?" Kelly Lester asked at about the same time.

The garrison said it was expecting "further guidance" in response to the overall changes. Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, meanwhile, provided a bit more information.

"At this time, masks shall be worn in child development centers and school age care facilities due to the inability to immunize those children in that age group and in high-touch areas such as beauty /barber shops, eye-care centers and tailoring," the joint base said Tuesday on its Facebook page.

Individual tenants and base services "may be more restrictive in mask-wear policy, especially in high-risk locations," and masks are still required for entry into health care facilities, the command said.

Nationwide as of Tuesday, masks were no longer required in 29 states, according to a New York Times analysis.

Appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said that "it's really important to understand that as communities are working one at a time locally to figure out what their policies are going to be as they open up, that they understand what is really important and what is true for individuals who are vaccinated."

"So this (the new policy) was really the first step, and it truly was science-driven, that demonstrates if you are vaccinated that you are not at risk of getting disease, if you take your mask off. If you are not vaccinated, importantly, get vaccinated."

Walensky was asked, "What is a business supposed to do" when somebody walks in without a mask and there's uncertainty "whether they're abiding by the rules?"

"You know, we are asking people to be honest with themselves," she responded. "If they are vaccinated and they are not wearing a mask, they are safe. If they are not vaccinated and they are not wearing a mask, they are not safe."

(c)2021 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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