How Hawaii Restaurants Handle Vaccination Mandates

As a newly opened restaurant that is still streamlining its cuisine, the recently introduced COVID-19 vaccination policies for diners and food workers on four islands in Hawaii receive decidedly mixed reviews. The mayors who created the new rules say they could change or eliminate them later this fall, if public health statistics improve.

Restaurants are now facing a number of issues, ranging from hire more security to protect their staff from angry customers at declining sales. For now, it’s up to restaurateurs to turn the experiences one star, whether they are theirs or those of their customers.

In County Maui – which also includes the islands of Lanai and Molokai – part of the newer emergency health rules, dubbed Safer Outside, requires all diners over the age of 12 to show proof of COVID vaccination if they wish to eat inside. Otherwise, they can only dine out, use drive-thru, or buy take-out. All employees involved in the catering service must be vaccinated or present weekly proof of a negative COVID test – an option not available to diners.

Maui’s new rules have reduced the occupancy rate of restaurants and bars to 50%. The City and County of Honolulu have announced similar rules with Secure access to Oahu regulations; however, Oahu’s program does not exempt alfresco dining, although it does allow diners 12 and older to show evidence of a negative COVID-19 test in the past 48 hours for seating. on the spot.

Some restaurants in the resort areas of South and West Maui had already experienced a decline in activity due to the typical September slowdown, exacerbated by Governor David Ige’s August 23 request that visitors postpone their trip to Hawaii. . Many visitors heeded the call and the state saw a significant increase in cancellations, with more than 50,000 room cancellations in Maui County alone, the Washington Post reported.

This drop is also being felt in restaurants. Within days of launching Safer Outside, restaurateurs in residential areas of central, eastern and backcountry Maui saw 25-50% drop in sales, according to the Maui News.

“Our thought after two days of this mandate is that it is really difficult for us to function under these conditions,” wrote Jayse Sato, chef-owner of Umi Sushi in Wailuku, on his restaurant’s Facebook page. “The vaxxed are saying they’re going to go out and support small businesses, but we haven’t seen that yet. … We are not trying to start a debate or an argument, we just need business to get back to normal. “

Several Maui restaurateurs responded by offering only take-out or alfresco dining. Alexa Caskey, co-owner of Moku Roots, a vegetarian and vegan restaurant in Lahaina, posted on his Facebook page: “We will proudly offer outdoor dining to everyone and indoor dining to no-one until we can offer that to everyone again. So put away your vaxx cards, I don’t want to see it, I want to see your beautiful healthy smiling faces, not your medical history.

Restaurants across Hawaii are adjusting to vaccination mandates that affect four islands. At Moku Roots in Lahaina, a worker cleans equipment as part of COVID precautions.

Jeanne Cooper / SFGATE Special

While noting that she is not anti-vaccination, Caskey said in the September 21 edition of “The Conversation” on Hawaii Public Radio that she found the new policy. “Unnecessarily burdensome” for small businesses and would prefer the state to reintroduce its pre-test policy for all travelers who wish to avoid quarantine.

However, state and local authorities are unlikely to require more pre-testing for travelers, given that visitors continue to account for around 1% of new cases, while community spread is now considered to be around 92%. of cases according to the state’s COVID-. 19 dashboard. Maui County has the lowest vaccination rate in the state, with 61% of residents fully vaccinated, while Honolulu has the highest rate at 70%, according to the state Department of Health.

“It didn’t seem fair to me to separate different people based on their medical histories,” Caskey said. “We were really lucky to have so much outside seating, because we just took the position that we weren’t going to deal with it. With that.”

The airy design of beachfront restaurants in resort areas has also freed up most of the checking of guests’ vaccination status. Maui County considers meals to be outdoors if they have 50% or less “non-continuous impervious walls” or “non-adjacent”.

This means that Huihui, the innovative Hawaiian-themed restaurant at Kaanapali Beach Hotel and the Ocean Travel Academy that debuted in late June, can serve diners under its roof. However, current capacity rules only allow the use of 130 of its 258 seats, including bar seats, according to John White, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing. The 5,000-square-foot restaurant hopes to gradually add patio seating as staff – still insufficient in Hawaii – allow.

“We haven’t changed any transactions for clients. We continue to see decent activity with a slight slowdown due to a drop in occupancy following Governor Ige’s September 23 announcement, ”noted White. “On the employee side, most of our employees have already received the vaccine, but we had the remaining handful vaccinated in accordance with the mayor’s mandate. “

Vaccination rates were also already high at Merriman’s Hawaii, which has a destination restaurant on each of the state’s four largest islands. The company made headlines in mid-August, weeks before the Oahu and Maui rules were announced, when it became the first in Hawaii’s hospitality industry to demand that workers be vaccinated.

“We were about 35% unvaccinated and 30% of our staff used it as an initiative to go out and get vaccinated,” said chef owner Peter Merriman, noting that “less than 5%” of some 300 to 400 employees across the state had left the company because of the new policy. “It’s not easy to find employees right now, but it’s a cost we’re willing to bear.

Merriman's Kapalua in Maui was the first restaurant in Hawaii to require vaccines for its employees.

Merriman’s Kapalua in Maui was the first restaurant in Hawaii to require vaccines for its employees.

Randy Jay Braun / Courtesy of Merriman’s Hawaii

The catalyst for Merriman’s staff immunization policy was to “create the safest possible place for our employees to go to work every day … and a model that allows us to continue operating while the pandemic is still here. “Merriman said. “The best model for us is vaccination. We had planned to extend it to guests, but Honolulu and Maui counties did it for us.

Despite Maui County’s exemption, the Merriman of Kapalua now require proof of vaccination, even for outdoor seating. “It’s the safest thing for our employees,” Merriman said. “When you go to a restaurant, you take off your mask and you eat. For our servers, we want to make it as safe as possible for them, so at least they’re waiting for people who are vaccinated. “

The new policies on Oahu and Maui are going “rather well” for TS Restaurants, which includes the Duke’s brand among its 13 restaurants in California and Hawaii, according to Dylan Ching, vice president of operations on Oahu and Kauai. Last week, only one of the company’s roughly 1,000 employees in Oahu and Maui quit during the vaccination or testing tenure, Ching said.

Restaurants have also received many responses to internal job postings for new “really high paying” positions to check customer immunization or testing records, according to Ching. The first days of application of the new rules were not, however, smooth.

“We had people upset and we had to turn a few different people away. We have had diplomatic exemptions and military exemptions. … Every half hour there is a new question, but we were able to make our way through, ”Ching said.

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