Reviews mixed on Oahu rule that allows eateries to fully reopen if patrons are vaccinated or tested

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Published: Jul. 8, 2021 at 2:41 PM HST|Updated: Jul. 9, 2021 at 10:09 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Oahu restaurants and bars can now do away with social distancing if they ask their patrons for proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test.

Eateries that don’t must still keep a 6-foot distance between parties, limiting their capacity.

The surprise rule change took effect Thursday as part of Oahu’s move to Tier 5.

It wasn’t immediately clear, however, how many restaurants would jump at the chance to ask patrons for their vaccine cards or a COVID test.

Oahu’s Ruby Tuesday restaurants are considering a plan to do so.

“What our plan is, is to make sure we have everybody come through and maybe check off that they’ve been vaccinated, or if they’ve gotten their test recently, and from there ― it is the honor system,” said Rick Nakashima, of Ruby Tuesday Hawaii.

Air Park Karaoke in Kakaako said it will allow up to 25 people in its largest private rooms, but won’t require the vaccination cards or testing.

“We just decided to opt out of the vaccination card proof and negative test because we are able to control our reservations and the number of guests that are coming in,” said Air Park owner Kylee Lin.

Still unclear: How children under 12 will be handled. They cannot be vaccinated yet.

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi says the state agreed to the new rules for restaurants and bars as a middle ground option. He acknowledged there’s little enforcement of the capacity rules anyway.

[Related coverage: Hawaii expands ‘vaccine passport’ program amid tourism boom]

The option was celebrated by industry officials Thursday, who have for weeks appealed to government leaders to ease restrictions limiting how many diners they can have indoors.

“There were some really loud ‘chee-hoos!’ (after the rule was OK’d). We are very excited because this is one step to the complete reopening,” said Greg Maples, chair of the Hawaii Restaurant Association.

Many eateries are grappling with a seemingly paradoxical situation: High demand, especially amid a tourism boom, but rules so restrictive that they can’t meet it (and, in some cases, move into the black).

Blangiardi told HNN Thursday: “The state agreed to something we strongly recommended that ... if a restaurant wants to check for vaccination records and have a vaccinated-only clientele there so they could operate at full capacity (and) the state has agreed to that,” Blangiardi said.

“We think that’s at least some middle ground.”

He added, “We were pushing for full capacity indoors for restaurants. But that said, at this time, we move forward and hopefully each and every day more people get vaccinated.”

As for enforcement, Blangiardi said that “candidly ... we are not really enforcing” the rules.

“What kind of statement is that from the mayor? He’s basically saying we’re not gonna follow our own mandate because he knows it’s not ethical,” said Gary Cordery, president of the Aloha Freedom Coalition.

“I know the mayor wants to open business, but then go ahead. Open the business. Let people be free. That’s what this should be about,” he added.

Cordery is also concerned that asking for proof of vaccinations could also lead to conflict in restaurants between servers and customers.

Nakashima, of Ruby Tuesday’s, is hopeful that won’t happen.

“I’m hoping ... there won’t be any confrontations at the front door with, you know, we don’t want to do this or can’t do that and why this and why that? I’m hoping that won’t happen.”

A spokeswoman for the governor said Oahu is so far the only county that requested the social distancing exemption for restaurants that ask for vaccination cards or negative COVID tests.

The COVID tests must have been taken within the last 48 hours.

The Hawaii Restaurant Association estimates that 30 to 40% of Hawaii restaurants went out of business during the pandemic.

For some, even the new rule may not be enough.

John Iha, owner of Gochi Grill, said it’s time for all restrictions to be dropped. “If our hospitals can handle everything, we should absolutely open up,” he said.

That isn’t poised to happen in Hawaii until the state reaches a vaccination rate of 70%. Right now, about 58% of the state’s population is vaccinated.

But Air Park’s Lin said moving to Tier 5 is still a step in the right direction.

“We’re thinking that this is going to be one step closer to the 100 percent opening, reopening, and we welcome it,” she said.

Tier 5 also allows for larger gatherings:

  • Parties of 25 are now allowed to gather indoors, up from 10
  • And parties of 75 can gather outdoors, up from 25

For more information on the new rules, click here.

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