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Restaurant and bar owners offer differing views of Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s reopening plan

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM 
                                Murphy’s Bar & Grill will reopen its new outdoor eating area Monday. The space originally opened in August but was closed after the second lockdown. Owner Don Murphy, pictured, said it will be open Monday through Friday, from 4 to 8 p.m.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Murphy’s Bar & Grill will reopen its new outdoor eating area Monday. The space originally opened in August but was closed after the second lockdown. Owner Don Murphy, pictured, said it will be open Monday through Friday, from 4 to 8 p.m.

Restaurant and bar owners had mixed reactions to Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s reopening plan, which bases restrictions on a four-tiered metric.

Under Tier 1, restaurants will be able to open for dining at 50% capacity today, and are relieved to be able to welcome customers back. Bar owners, however, are unable to reopen yet, and unsure how much longer they can survive if required to remain closed through the rest of this year.

Under current guidelines, restaurants must limit tables to five people from the same household, and keep tables 6 feet apart. In addition, they must get contact information from customers coming in to the restaurant in order to facilitate contact tracing.

Tom Jones of the Hawaii Restaurant Association said overall the new order is welcome news.

“We’re confident as an association that this contact tracing program and reopening of dining rooms will provide stronger evidence that dining at restaurants is a relatively safe activity,” said Jones. “It’s such an important part of the economy, and we’re happy to get our workers back to work.”

Jones said it may be difficult to verify everyone in a party is from the same household, and that restaurants will, for the most part, have to rely on an honor system. Being able to reopen, however, will help show that restaurants, which are already under rigorous health and sanitation standards, are not a significant source for virus spread.

Caldwell on Tuesday said he decided to allow restaurants to open for dine-in services despite recommendations from the state Health Department because he recognized how important the industry was to Oahu’s economy.

Health officials — weighing in a recent Centers for Disease Control report that found eating and drinking on-site at locations might be important risk factors associated with SARS-CoV-2 infection — had recommended that restaurants only offer takeout or outdoor dining under Tier 1 guidelines.

Jones, owner of Gyotaku Japanese restaurants, said he already has been collecting contact information from customers since May as recommended by national guidelines. He said keeping track of customers is important for the health and safety of everyone, including restaurant employees, who are like front-line workers.

He said customers will be assured the information will be used for contact tracing purposes, only, and will only be kept for 28 days.

Gyotaku also has drawn up a pandemic dining etiquette for its customers, which offers tips to help make the experience smoother. Some of the tips include welcoming temperature checks, and deciding on the entire order at once to reduce server visits to the table.

Don Murphy, owner of Murphy’s Bar and Grill downtown, looks forward to opening his doors to dine-in customers today.

He had been offering takeout during the closure, but it brings in only about 40% of the revenue that the restaurant made prior to the pandemic, and the business is losing money.

Enforcing the five-party household rule will be challenging, he said, because some can include an aunt or uncle, or other extended member. There are also couples who may not live in the same household, and it’s not always obvious.

To make it easier to collect contact information, Murphy said he was planning to use a smartphone app that customers can register on prior to entering the restaurant.

“The customers are aware of everything, and pretty respectful,” he said. “Everybody realizes that this isn’t a hoax, as the president put it.”

Murphy’s has a restaurant license, although it has an in-house bar, and he’s fine with not offering alcohol after 10 p.m. since few people are downtown at that time.

Fortunately, he said, he also can offer outdoor dining as an option.

He’s out of luck for his other business, Ferguson’s Pub at the Dillingham Transportation Building downtown, which has been shuttered since March. He does not expect to be able to reopen it for some time.

“My gut feeling is they’re never going to let the bars reopen, until the pandemic is gone, which could be the middle of next year,” he said.

Restaurateurs say even with the reopening, they are still facing an uphill battle.

Jones said many restaurants are only surviving, with 50% to 65% of the sales they made prior to the pandemic, and that without federal and state assistance they would have closed by now.

In Hawaii Kai, Liko’s Tab & Table, a relatively new sports bar that offers draft beers and craft cocktails, is opening its doors at 10 a.m. today after only offering takeout the past few weeks.

Takeout is not enough, according to partner Nick Prioletti, and was simply a way to stay in touch with customers and keep a half-dozen kitchen staff employed.

“It absolutely does not provide us with the revenue stream we need as a business because our business model is not to-go,” he said. “We can pivot to to-go, but we’re doing a small fraction of our revenue.”

When the lockdowns occurred, Prioletti said, it felt like being thrown in the water without a life vest.

“We support keeping people safe and healthy, but how do we also support people closing their doors, making sacrifices and this big pile of debt?” he said.

With each government-mandated closure, he said it would have been nice to concurrently have been offered help in order to stay afloat. The federal government aid earlier this year did help, but was simply like a “quarter-tank of gas.”

Prioletti said two neighboring restaurants already have closed their doors for good at the same shopping center.

“I think the rules will at least allow people to get back on their feet,” he said, “but you are still going to struggle to pay the rent and high cost of labor. If you’re a place that needs people to gather socially you’re going to struggle.”

Bill Comerford, chairman of the Hawaii Bar Owners Association, said he went to the mayor’s press conference at Mission Memorial Auditorium on Tuesday because he wanted to ask a question, but was ushered away because it was limited to press and staff.

Comerford, the owner of four bars, including the Irish Rose Saloon and Anna O’Brien’s, said he wants to sit down and have a conversation with the mayor, but has not been able to for the past six months.

He feels that bars are getting an unfair share of the blame for spreading the virus on Oahu, even though many, including his, have been following all the COVID-19 guidelines.

“Right now I feel like I’ve been charged, brought to trial, convicted and sentenced to death as a business without even so much as a phone call from our government,” he said. “At least give us a conversation.”

There has been a lot of “bait-and-switch,” he said. Bars were told they could reopen, then shut down again, making it tough for owners to deal with landlords or to determine whether to get a liquor license.

With the spigot of revenue shut off for more than six months, bar owners simply cannot continue to pay rent or make ends meet, even with federal and state help.

Comerford, who is on unemployment, has let most of his 80 previous employees go. While he is unable to reopen his bars, he is not able to sell them or just walk away from them, either.

The lease for Anna O’Brien’s is expiring next week.

“Should I renew it or walk away?” he said. “There’s no answer to that. I can’t sell it. Right now I can’t even give the bar to my employees. I said, I could give you my bar for free, and they can’t take it because of the restrictions out there.”

NEW GUIDELINES FOR OAHU RESTAURANTS

>> Only parties of five or fewer are allowed per table. The five individuals must be from the same family or household.

>> Tables must be set at least 6 feet apart.

>> Restaurants must collect information from patrons to facilitate contact tracing.

>> Masks must be worn by customers at all times other than when they are actively eating or drinking.

>> No alcohol may be served, sold or consumed after 10 p.m.

Source: City and County of Honolulu

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