As the state has moved gradually toward pandemic recovery, tourists as well as local residents have eagerly begun making more frequent restaurant stops, for casual meals as well as celebratory occasions. Even though vaccination counts have slowed, further expansion of Hawaii’s restaurant service is expected, well in advance of the elusive “herd immunity” levels being achieved.
Under current Tier 4 rules, Oahu restaurants and bars can seat groups of up to 10 indoors, up to 25 outdoors. But at the point when the islands hit 60% of its population fully vaccinated, the pent-up demand for dining out will be magnified by new state rules allowing eateries to seat up to 75% of their full capacity, up from 50%, with maximum group sizes of 25 indoors and 75 outdoors.
This could be the makings of a perfect storm — more people gathering in a setting known to foster COVID-19 spread — and it strongly suggests a stronger enforcement stance is needed. The risk of an infection surge could reverse the gains Hawaii has made against the virus.
Some of the vulnerabilities of the restaurant business are apparent. They were cited in a recent report on case clusters compiled by state Department of Health investigators, focusing on the spread of COVID-19 among restaurant workers.
In April, DOH investigated a cluster of 38 cases associated with an Oahu fast-food restaurant. The study traced the spread of the virus to 11 unvaccinated restaurant employees and then to their household members, including four who worked at three other fast-food restaurants.
The conditions of work amplify the risk of virus transmission, through interaction among staff and the public, close quarters and poor ventilation, according to the report.
Worse yet: The employees had been allowed to work with symptoms of illness, despite a pre-check requirement, said Department of Health (DOH) officials, adding that others who had stayed home while sick were allowed to return without testing.
Of course, the restaurant outbreaks certainly are not uniquely a problem for the isles. In March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report showing that reopening restaurants for on-site dining was followed by a rise in infections, especially where mask mandates are not in effect.
Hawaii does have a mask mandate, fortunately, but in restaurants patrons remove them shortly after they are seated, when the first food or drink arrives. Last week’s cluster report had three restaurant-based clusters on Oahu, totaling 17 cases; on Maui, two restaurant clusters brought 10 cases.
Restaurants are not the only sites for clusters — the surges recently at certain church gatherings, in corrections facilities and at informal, private gatherings are well known. In general, most private companies found to be in violation of a COVID-19 restriction are not identified.
But in Hawaii and many other places, dining establishments already are held to particularly exacting regulatory standards in the interest of protecting public health. The DOH Food Safety Branch administers a color-coded placard program — the green, yellow and red safety assessments issued after inspections and displayed prominently to customers.
Violations are effectively announced publicly so that potential patrons can gauge whether to give the restaurant their business. There is no reason why something similar couldn’t be instituted for COVID-19 violations.
Regulations need to be strict. Restaurants currently are under pressure to fill staffing openings, so being lax on enforcing a no-illness policy becomes the course of least resistance.
In addition, as the DOH rightly asserts, restaurants can play an integral role in boosting the state’s vaccination rates, ensuring that workers have time to get their shots and offering other incentives.
Hawaii needs and wants its restaurants to succeed — but safety must be the first consideration.