June 18, 2024


The Food community

How Hawaii’s restaurants are navigating vaccine mandates

6 min read

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

Restaurants are now dealing with a number of issues, ranging from having to hire more security to protect their staff from angry customers to a decline in sales. For now, it’s up to restaurateurs to turn around any one-star experiences, either their own or customers.

In Maui County — which also includes the islands of Lanai and Molokai — a portion of the newest emergency health rules, nicknamed Safer Outside, requires all diners over the age of 12 to present proof of COVID vaccination if they wish to eat inside. Otherwise, they can only dine outside, use a drive-through or buy takeout. All employees involved in food and beverage service must be vaccinated or present weekly proof of a negative COVID test — an option not available to diners.
Maui’s new rules reduced restaurant and bar occupancy to 50%. The city and county of Honolulu announced similar rules with Safe Access Oahu regulations; however, the Oahu program doesn’t exempt outdoor dining, although it does permit diners 12 and older to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test within the past 48 hours for onsite seating.
Some restaurants in the resort areas of South and West Maui had already seen a decline in business due to the typical September slowdown, exacerbated by Gov. David Ige’s Aug. 23 request that visitors postpone travel to Hawaii. Many visitors heeded that 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

That decrease is felt in restaurants as well. Within a few days of the Safer Outside launch, restaurateurs in the residential areas of Central, East and Upcountry Maui saw downturns in sales of 25% to 50%, according to the Maui News.
“Our thought after two days of this mandate is that we find it really hard to operate under these conditions,” Jayse Sato, chef-owner of Umi Sushi in Wailuku, wrote on his restaurant’s Facebook page. “The vaxxed say they will come out and support small businesses but we haven’t seen that yet. … We are not trying to start a debate or any arguments, we just need business to go back to normal.”
Several Maui restaurateurs responded by offering only takeout or outdoor dining. Alexa Caskey, co-owner of Moku Roots, a vegetarian and vegan restaurant in Lahaina, posted on its 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 your vaxx cards away, I don’t want to see it, I want to see your beautiful smiling healthy faces, not your medical history.”

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

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

Jeanne Cooper/Special to SFGATE

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

However, state and local authorities are unlikely to require more pre-testing for travelers, given that visitors continue to account for about 1% of new cases, while community spread is now thought to account for some 92% of cases per 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 at 70%, according to the state Department of Health.

“It didn’t feel right to me to segregate different people based on their medical history,” Caskey said. “We were really lucky that we have so much outdoor seating, because we just took the stance that we’re not going to deal with this.”
The airy design of beachfront restaurants in resort areas freed most from having to deal with checking guests’ vaccination status, too. Maui County considers dining to be outdoors if it has 50% or less “non-continuous” or “non-adjacent impermeable walls.”
That means Huihui, Kaanapali Beach Hotel’s innovative Hawaiian-themed restaurant and ocean voyaging academy that debuted in late June, can serve diners under its roof. However, current capacity rules allow for only 130 of its 258 seats to be used, including bar seating, according to John White, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing. The 5,000-square-foot restaurant hopes to add patio seating gradually as staffing — still in short supply throughout Hawaii — allows.
“We haven’t changed any guest-facing operations. We continue to see decent activity with a slight downturn due to lower occupancy following Gov. Ige’s announcement on Sept. 23,” White noted. “On the employee side, most of our staff have already received the vaccine, but we had the remaining handful get vaccinated per 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 require workers to be vaccinated.
“We were about 35% unvaccinated and 30% of our staff used this 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 over 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 vaccination policy was “creating the safest possible place for our employees to go to work every day … and a model that enables us to continue to operate while the pandemic is still out there,” Merriman said. “The best model for us is vaccination. We had a plan to extend it to guests, but the counties of Honolulu and Maui did it for us.”
Despite Maui County’s exemption, the Merriman’s in Kapalua now requires proof of vaccination, even for outdoor seating. “It’s the safest thing for our employees,” Merriman said. “When you go in a restaurant, you take off your mask and eat. For our waiters, we want to make it as safe as possible for them, so at least they’re waiting on vaccinated people.”
The new policies on Oahu and Maui have been going “pretty well” for T S Restaurants, which includes the Duke’s brand among its 13 restaurants in California and Hawaii, according to Dylan Ching, vice president for operations on Oahu and Kauai. As of last week, only one of the company’s approximately 1,000 employees on Oahu and Maui had quit over the vaccinate-or-test mandate, Ching said.
The restaurants also received many responses to internal job postings for new, “really well-compensated” positions to check customers’ vaccination or test records, according to Ching. The first few days of enforcing the new rules were not without hiccups, though.
“We’ve had some upset people and we’ve had to turn a few different people away. We’ve had diplomatic exemptions and military exemptions. … Every half-hour there’s a new question, but we’ve been able to make our way through it,” Ching said.

chezvousrestaurant.co.uk | Newsphere by AF themes.