Oahu bars would be forced to shut down for three weeks to allow the city time to “recalibrate” and come up with tighter regulations to curb the spread of COVID-19 under a revised guideline that Mayor Kirk Caldwell is seeking from Gov. David Ige.
Bar owners and other business leaders are objecting to the proposal, arguing that many liquor-serving establishments are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy as it is, due to the pandemic-induced economic slowdown.
In what would be Caldwell’s fourth amended coronavirus emergency order, the mayor is also asking for the OK to:
>> Require face coverings both indoors and outdoors unless a person is alone or with immediate family members. Face coverings would not be required during water activities, but would be necessary in gyms.
>> Reduce the maximum amount of people allowed at a social gathering to no more than 10 nonfamily members. The current maximum is 50. The requirement would not be imposed for institutions already practicing social distancing such as churches and temples.
Ige had not signed off on the proposal as of Tuesday night.
Caldwell said Tuesday that he’s calling for the temporary shutdown of bars due to the recent spike in the number of people testing positive for the new coronavirus coupled with an apparent association between a number of cases and bars.
Even before his announcement, the proposal drew a sharp rebuke from the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii, which urged the mayor and governor to not close bars.
Sherry Menor-McNamara, chamber president and CEO, said her organization supports a continued crackdown on bars that don’t comply with the COVID-19 regulations but objects to a policy that punishes businesses that are complying. “The decision to close all bars would add to the pain of too many business owners who are complying with guidelines,” Menor-McNamara said.
Thomas Ray, a partner in Square Barrels and Heiho House, said responsible business owners have taken the steps to ensure that patrons will be safe at their bars. “The mayor’s decision to punish all bars and brewpubs will destroy hundreds of businesses and cost many more jobs,” Ray said.
Over the weekend, Caldwell said the city was contemplating rolling back the alcohol cutoff time for bars and restaurants to 10 p.m. after two bars were shut down for a day last week by city inspectors when the establishments were found to be in violation of the mandates.
Then, on Monday, the state Department of Health announced that two separate Honolulu bars appeared to be the source of multiple infections, and urged those who patronized them to contact their physicians. Caldwell said he learned that it appeared violations occurred during a televised sports event in the middle of the afternoon.
“It just made me realize that, given the number of cases we’re seeing, that we needed to take stronger action,” Caldwell said.
Recent incidents show “we continue to see evidence of a lack of compliance, and now we have firm evidence of the spread of the virus due to bars not following the proper protocols,” Caldwell said. “People have been infected, from patrons to bartenders to bouncers to those who serve alcohol.”
The three-week period will “give us enough time, working with our liquor inspectors to (develop) a way to beef up our ability to inspect bars in a way that we can target if someone is not following the protocols.”
Restaurants that serve liquor will be able to continue operations — including serving alcohol until midnight. Bars, however, cannot stay open just to sell food, Caldwell said.
“We are concerned that maybe certain bars will go into the food service business,” the mayor said, adding that he spoke Tuesday with representatives from the Honolulu Police Department and the Liquor Commission before making a final decision on a three-week bar closure. “We’re going to see if we can make sure there is not abuse of that.”
Asked by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser to clarify which establishments would need to shut down, commission administrators said they had not seen the language of Caldwell’s proposal and would not comment until they did.
According to the Honolulu Liquor Commission website, those with “restaurant” licenses are defined as establishments that are “regularly used for serving of meals to patrons for compensation,” have suitable kitchen facilities and derive a minimum of 30% of gross revenue from food sales.
Caldwell first clamped down on alcohol service two weeks ago, when he got the OK from Ige to halt the sale, service and consumption of alcohol in both bars and liquor-serving restaurants, at midnight. Pre-COVID-19, those with bar licenses were allowed to serve alcohol until 2 a.m. while those with cabaret licenses could serve until 4 a.m.
Greg Maples, chairman of the Hawaii Restaurant Association, said his organization is unhappy with the proposal. “We caution our officials, who have a tremendously hard job right now, to not take a shotgun approach with any industry,” Maples said. “Maybe they should have shut down the bars with the violations and not the entire industry. We would hope for the same considerations with restaurants going forward.”
As for the modified face-covering rule, Caldwell said he wants clearance from Ige to mandate “face coverings indoors everywhere except sitting at your desk and outdoors if you can’t practice proper physical distancing of 6 feet or less unless you put on a face covering.”
“If it interferes with jogging, if it interferes with people playing a sport … then you either need to slow down your activity or stop doing it,” Caldwell said.
He added that he would rather not stop sports events now occurring amid the pandemic.