The enforcement of Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s COVID-19 emergency order prohibiting the sale or consumption of alcohol after 10 p.m. on Oahu appears strict, confusing and unfair, according to managers who were recently cited.
Caldwell’s July 29 order says restaurants with a liquor license on Oahu must cease the “sale, service, and consumption of liquor” at or before 10 p.m. Violators are subject to immediate closure for 24 hours and can be fined and have their liquor licenses suspended or revoked.
On Wednesday the city released the names of three restaurants that were determined by the Honolulu Liquor Commission to have alcohol “readily available” after 10 p.m. on Saturday.
The restaurants — Pitch Sports Bar, Vein at Kakaako and The Nighthawk — were visited by liquor commission investigators and were subsequently closed for 24 hours, the city said.
But representatives from two of them said they were already closed by the time the investigators came, and the manager at the third said they were cited for not cleaning up a nearly empty, stray cup of beer in time.
The owners for Pitch Sports Bar at SALT in Kakaako said that last call for alcohol is around 9:30 p.m., and around 9:45 p.m. they start clearing away glasses so that alcohol is not available at 10 p.m.
“We are very strict with our guests regarding the 10 p.m. cut off for alcohol,” said manager and owner Zenn Inouye in a written response to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “However, we missed a cup that had less than 2 ounces of beer in it, and (we were) cited for having alcohol available after 10.”
Inouye, who was working Saturday night, said the staff was not selling alcohol after 10 p.m. and that it was “an honest mistake” for not cleaning up the cup in time.
They are open until midnight for food sales only, he said, and stressed that they are compliant with all the other emergency orders.
Inouye accepted responsibility for the violation.
The two other restaurants were not clear about what they did wrong, echoing other struggling restaurant and bar owners who have been flustered by the changing policies brought about by COVID-19.
In an effort to combat the growing COVID-19 cases on Oahu, Caldwell in mid-July said serving alcohol on the island was prohibited after midnight, arguing that there were “hundreds of people at bars practicing no physical distancing, wearing no face coverings and dancing close together.”
By the end of July, two Honolulu bars were associated with as many as 12 cases, so all bars were closed for three weeks, an order that has since been extended through Sept. 16. The alcohol consumption restriction was also rolled back from midnight to 10 p.m.
On Tuesday the state Department of Health reported a COVID-19 cluster involving at least five people at two Honolulu bars that stemmed from an apparent gathering in July.
The DOH has labeled drinking and socializing at bars one of several “high-risk situations” because of inconsistent social distancing practices.
Studies have shown that COVID-19 spreads faster indoors, and one study conducted in Japan reported that the risk of transmitting COVID-19 was nearly 19 times greater in closed environments compared to open-air ones.
However, evidence that alcohol-serving establishments have contributed heavily to the spread of COVID-19 in Hawaii has yet to emerge, and the DOH said it has not collected that data.
Johnny Li, a manager at Vein at Kakaako, said the restaurant was closed Saturday and there were no customers. Only Li and a chef were inside when a liquor commission investigator checked up on them.
“We were already closed that night,” he said. “We were just talking, lost track of time. And it just so happened that the liquor commission was walking around the area, and they came in.”
Li said all the doors were closed but that they were at the bar area after hours and did have alcohol out. He said the investigator took a sample and placed it in a vial, presumably as evidence.
The city had cited Vein for having alcohol readily available and “customers sitting at the bar drinking with no meal,” which Li disagrees with.
“If they wrote that, that’s wrong on them, honestly. … Our hours are only until nine, and we normally get our customers out before 10,” he said.
It’s a similar story for The Nighthawk, which was also cited Saturday night for having customers at the bar drinking with no meal. Jill Miyashiro, the owner’s partner, said they were closed, no alcohol was being served and the one person at the bar was a friend.
She said her partner was washing dirty glasses when the investigator walked in, and they were told that they were not allowed to have people inside after 10 p.m., contrary to Caldwell’s orders.
“What bothers me is that based on what happened on Saturday, we are not allowed to even be in our own restaurant past 10,” Miyashiro said in a written response to the Star- Advertiser. “Which means we need to close at 9 p.m. to be able to clean up? That just seems very unreasonable.”
She said there was a lot of confusion regarding the situation.
When asked to comment, Caldwell’s spokesman Alexander Zannes said it is improper for the liquor commission to comment on the merits of cases that are still being adjudicated.
But Caldwell in a statement emphasized the clarity and fair enforcement of the order.
“The Honolulu Liquor Commission has taken on a very difficult task, in an even more difficult time,” he said. “We’re all committed to working with these businesses to make sure they understand the rules that are in place, and that these rules are enforced in a fair and balanced manner. We’ll continue to meet with business owners and address their concerns as we work to stop the spread of COVID-19.”
On Aug. 8 the liquor commission shut down 10 other establishments for 24 hours.