HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - The city is easing its COVID-19 restrictions Thursday, allowing a host of businesses to reopen. But some small business owners say the rules are still too restrictive.
“I think Hawaii is one of the most restrictive states in the union," said James Chun, owner of the Hawaii Wedding Studio. “Obviously, it’s not fair because some people are thriving and others are drowning.”
Under the city’s plan, retailers are limited to 50% capacity. Restaurants are also limited to 50% capacity and they can’t serve groups larger than five — who all must be from the same household. Bars remain closed.
At Honolulu Hale on Wednesday, a number of business owners gathered to say the restrictions are hurting the economy and should be overturned. But legal experts said that’s a tough case to make during an emergency.
“They would have a pretty big obstacle to prove that there was absolutely no rational reasons for making these distinctions," said University of Hawaii law professor Andrea Freeman.
Freeman also said that business can challenge restrictions that appear arbitrary — like when the city allowed Costco and Walmart to operate unrestricted while smaller retailers selling the same items were shut down.
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said the new reopening plan also limits the big stores.
“That same requirement is going to be applied to the big box stores that have been open all along. So now they too — just like local retail — both have the same balance of 50% capacity," said Caldwell.
The city’s reopening strategy relies on a tiered system in which a higher number of cases triggers more restrictions. As cases go down, the restrictions ease.
Some think that system is still too rigid.
Former Gov. Neil Abercrombie cited the example of clusters in the prison system, which has pushed Oahu to the more restrictive tiers.
But he said that cluster had nothing to small retail shops and bars in Chinatown, which were forced to shut down during the second lockdown.
“If one business violates the rules and it pushes the cases over one of the tier numbers, why should the rest of the business suffer," Abercrombie said.
He said the city and state need to have a more robust contract tracing and mass testing system to provide it with more flexibility on how it deals with the spread of the virus in the community.
Abercrombie, who owns the Maunakea Marketplace in Chinatown with several partners, added that many of his tenants — who haven’t seen infections in their stores — have been hard-hit by the city’s second shutdown.
“We’re right on the knife’s edge of collapse. We cannot have rigidity, we have to have flexibility," he said.