The state Department of Health has ruled that travel is not essential to the “functioning of society” and has said most hotel workers must wait a little longer to get vaccinated.
But Hawaii hotel leaders and the union are urging the state to take a page from New York’s playbook and designate Hawaii’s hospitality workers as front-line essential workers.
On Monday, New York added hotel workers who have contact with guests to the 1B list of those eligible to get a COVID vaccine now. Keeping Hawaii’s hotel workers safe is key to recovering the state’s lead tourism industry. However, Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association President and CEO Mufi Hannemann said most have not yet been vaccinated.
“We feel strongly that hotel workers should be moved up to 1B,” Hannemann said. “New York just became the first state to recognize the role that hotels play in the economy and in the fight against COVID-19.”
Hawaii Department of Health spokesman Brooks Baehr said DOH has classified most hotel workers in category 1C, which includes adults age 65 to 74 years, 16- to 64-year olds with high-risk medical conditions, and workers who are essential, but aren’t deemed front-line essential, as they “aren’t essential to the functioning of society.”
“Are our visitor industry hotel hospitality workers very important to us in Hawaii, absolutely, and that’s why we are eager to get them vaccinated. They are vital to our economy,” Baehr said. “But frankly, we can survive, not forever without them, but day to day you can get by without the bellhop. You can get by without the valet. You can park your own car and carry your own bag.”
Baehr said DOH’s vaccination eligibility determinations have closely followed guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which does not “recommend travel at this time.”
“That’s kind of harsh if you are in Hawaii, but we echo that sentiment,” he said. “We don’t think anyone should be traveling unnecessarily at this time.”
Hannemann said he’s twice asked Gov. David Ige to consider assigning a higher vaccination priority to hospitality workers. He said Hawaii hotels have housed critical health care workers, first responders, military and federal workers. Some have served as quarantine sites, he said.
Hawaii hotels even have made a commitment to the state that they will house COVID-19 positive guests who do not need hospitalization, Hannemann said.
“We get it that kupuna have to be prioritized, but when it comes to our workers we’d like to make a case that we are critical and essential,” he said. “Kauai has already started vaccinating some hotel workers and we’d like to see that begin statewide. New York found a way to step up so we’d like to continue the dialogue with Gov. David Ige and Hawaii State Health Director Dr. Elizabeth Char.”
On Friday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced expanded eligibility for the COVID-19 vaccine to hotel workers. Cuomo’s announcement acknowledged “that hotels in many parts of New York serve as quarantine areas for COVID-positive persons to isolate from their families. In turn, staff at these facilities are being exposed to COVID regularly.”
Cuomo’s decision to include hotel workers in the 1B vaccination prioritization group was due in part to “the overall increase to the state’s supply and the essential health care service that these hotel workers provide.”
While lack of supply has periodically slowed Hawaii’s COVID-19 vaccination rollout, the state’s vaccination percentage is higher than the national average. The arrival this week of Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose COVID-19 vaccine in Hawaii also is expected to increase the pace of vaccinations here.
Lynette Eastman, general manager of the Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club, said a majority of her guests are now military and other essential workers, and she expects other hotels have similar guest lists.
“How can we not be essential when we are taking in quarantine guests daily,” Eastman said. “We should be in the 1B category, but if we aren’t, we’d at least like to be in the priority group for category 1C.”
Baehr said health department officials have estimated that as many as 500,000 people will be part of category 1C, which is the largest vaccination group to work through.
“Right now, we are at 75 years old and above, the next category will be 70 and above and then 65 and above,” Baehr said. “Then it will be essential workers and those in the at-risk category. 1C is not far away. It’s coming soon.”
Nelson Talan, a maintenance worker at the Surfjack, said that day can’t come soon enough. The 63-year-old Talan said he is so worried about the possibility of bringing COVID-19 home that he changes promptly after work and puts his clothes in his own hamper so that they aren’t washed with the rest of the family’s laundry.
“I’m very eager to be vaccinated for the protection of my family,” he said. “I’m very worried. In my point of view, we are supposed to be vaccinated as soon as possible. We are dealing with tourists and we service them.”
Jordyn Kilgore, a Surfjack guest services agent, said lower COVID-19 positivity rates in Hawaii have brought some peace of mind. Still, she worries that some guests “could slip through the cracks.”
“I’d definitely feel safer if I knew that I was protected and my 60-year-old mother was projected,” Kilgore said. “I’m living at home again and it’s unsettling to go to work and worry about passing it on. When I get home now, it’s straight through the door and into the shower.”
Hannemann said early planning for shot distribution is critical as Hawaii’s visitor industry includes more than 200,000 people who work in hospitality and leisure, retail and air transportation.
Unite Here Local 5, a union that represents some 8,000 hotel workers in Hawaii, issued a statement Monday asking the state to prioritize “hospitality workers for inclusion in the next phase of vaccination roll out, as they are essential workers who welcome both global and domestic travelers — including guests who are required to quarantine by the state, or have tested positive for COVID-19.”
Unite Here Local 5 said it wants to work with the state and the hotel industry to create a vaccination program for hotel workers.The union recommends that the state commit to a voluntary vaccination program for all hotel workers, not just front-of-house workers.
Currently, DOH defines essential workers as those who must work on-site and perform their duties in close proximity to co-workers or the public.
Baehr said the visitor industry will “play a huge role in helping determine who is at the top.”
“It won’t be like everyone will come at once. It will be prioritized and sub-prioritized,” he said.