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Hawaii bar owners await Gov. David Ige’s plan for reopening

Several bar owners are expected to rally today in front of the Honolulu Liquor Commission to protest the lack of information coming from state leaders about when bars can reopen despite liquor license renewals coming due at the end of this month.

Bill Comerford, who owns four Irish pubs in Honolulu, said it will cost him about $8,500 for a new license even though he doesn’t know when he will be able to use it and he won’t be able to use his current one for three out of 12 months.

He blamed Gov. David Ige’s office for refusing to communicate with bar and club owners and to invite them into the discussion for reopening.

“You tax us to death and now you won’t let us operate,” Comerford told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Sunday. “Every sale that you’re not getting right now is money that you’re not getting into the government.”

He said the state, which is looking at an estimated $2.3 billion in lost taxes due to the coronavirus, is losing additional money by not allowing bars to reopen. The state could be making money from taxes on alcoholic drinks, business taxes and taxes on alcohol wholesalers, he said. Adding that he pays about $300,000 annually in general excise tax and also has about 80 employees who are paid some $1.5 million in annual wages, which are also taxed.

Comerford said in states where bars have successfully reopened, government officials communicated plans with business owners. He said he needs information from the state on when he might be allowed to reopen so he can decide what to do when his $580,000 federal coronavirus loan runs out at the end of this month at the same time that his liquor license renewal comes due.

“They are completely shut off,” he said of the governor’s office. “He’s making all the calls. It kind of reminds me of North Korea.”

After being closed by the coronavirus lockdown, the Honolulu Liquor Commission is opening today, for appointments only, in time for the annual license renewal period.

While Oahu restaurants have been given approval to resume table dining serv­ice Friday with social distancing in place, bars and nightclubs are to remain closed under the state’s reopening orders.

The state is currently in stage three, called Act with Care, of Ige’s five-stage reopening strategy. In stage three, all businesses and operations can be given approval to reopen, including indoor gyms, theaters, and personal services — except for one group, described as large venues, bars, and clubs.

That group must wait until stage four, called Recovery, for permission to reopen. The state has established a 14-day waiting period before moving to the next stage. Hawaii was already in stage three when Ige announced the phased recovery program on May 18, so the earliest the state could move into stage four — when bars may receive approval to reopen — is today.

Meanwhile, the daily count of new coronavirus cases in Hawaii continues to remain low with only one new case on Maui reported Sunday, bringing the statewide infection tally to 652. In May, the daily count of new cases never exceeded four and totaled 46 for the month. At the peak of Hawaii’s outbreak, 34 cases were reported on April 1 alone. The death toll has remained unchanged at 17 since May 3.

Also, visitor arrivals Saturday didn’t top the 384 visitors who arrived May 23, the Saturday before the Memorial Day holiday. This Saturday, 369 of the 1,268 passengers who arrived were visitors, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

That was the second highest number of visitors to arrive in the islands since Ige ordered a mandatory two-week quarantine for trans-Pacific travelers on March 26, which was expanded to interisland travelers on April 1. Both quarantines are set to expire June 30, but Ige said last week that he will make an announcement about eliminating the interisland quarantine soon and will likely extend the trans- Pacific quarantine beyond June.

On Sunday, Lt. Gov. Josh Green said on his Facebook page that Ige will have an “important announcement” today, but did not elaborate. Green had previously said the quarantine for interisland travel would likely end in early June.

Visitor industry leaders recently urged the state to lift the interisland quarantine as a test for ending the trans-Pacific quarantine.

Maui Mayor Mike Victorino sent a letter to Ige on Saturday asking him to lift the interisland quarantine on June 15. He said doing so would give local airports the opportunity to enhance policies and procedures as well as test equipment for screening passengers in preparation for future trans-Pacific travel.

“Furthermore, this will provide our community with a sense of normalcy, especially for those with family and friends on neighbor islands,” Victorino wrote. “Allowing them to travel is the start of economic recovery and the ‘new normal.’”

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