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Editorial: Safe Access calls for cooperation

The Safe Access Oahu program — Honolulu Hale’s latest effort to lower high levels of COVID-19 infection here — limits access to restaurants, bars, indoor gym facilities and other entertainment and recreational venues to patrons and employees who show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test, effective Sept. 13.

The difficult but prudent move, slated for a 60-day run, follows last month’s orders that include a requirement for all city employees to be vaccinated, unless granted a medical or religious exemption. There’s also a cap limiting group gatherings to 10 people indoors and 25 outdoors for a period of four weeks.

In the scramble for directives aimed at containing today’s coronavirus-fueled medical emergency, only one thing is certain: A perfect policy solution that suits all is unattainable.

Meanwhile, the highly contagious delta variant is continuing to push case counts to alarming levels. Hospital beds are near or at capacity; and on Wednesday, 13 patient deaths were reported, marking the state’s highest single-day total for fatalities since the pandemic surfaced. In response, we all must prioritize our common goal of subduing the virus to clear a path to something more akin to normal life.

Oahu’s Safe Access program, developed with input from the business sector and public health experts, aims to make strides in this direction by creating safer spaces for businesses, their workers and their customers.

Speaking on a recent Star-Advertiser “Spotlight Hawaii” webcast, Honolulu Office of Economic Revitalization Director Amy Asselbaye said: “Instead of shutting down our economy, instead of keeping people home, this is an alternative” that also allows commerce to further rebound from virus-related setbacks.

It’s unsettling, though, that in advance of the program’s launch, prep work at restaurants is expected to include training in “de-escalation” techniques.

Hawaii Restaurant Association Chairman Greg Maples, who also participated in the webcast, said elsewhere where similar programs are in place, “there have been issues … where people come in and they’re upset.” He added, “People are very divided on how they feel about this. … When you go to a restaurant, please be kind. We’re doing the best we can with what we have.”

The association is gathering testimony from members about the adverse impacts of the program on restaurants. But as a counterpoint, health officials say the risk of an outbreak among restaurant and other food services workers has grown — due, in part, to the delta variant, combined with low vaccination rates among workers.

With bustling summertime visitor traffic ebbing, restaurants and other tourism-related businesses are now in need of stepped-up kamaaina support. Industry observers say the typically slower fall season already appears to be further dampened by the ongoing surge in cases.

For the sake of improving Oahu’s public health outlook, and to support neighborhood businesses, opponents of the Safe Access program should stifle temptation to look for loopholes. Under the program’s rules, unvaccinated patrons may spend up to 15 minutes — within a 24-hour period — in an establishment included in the order. That leaves ample time to pick up takeout dining. Also, kids under age 12, who are currently ineligible for vaccination, will be exempt.

The need for vaccine-focused city orders was underscored on Monday when Honolulu Emergency Medical Services Chief Dr. Jim Ireland said nearly all calls for ambulances due to COVID-19 are coming from those who are unvaccinated. With about 66% of Oahu’s total population vaccinated, more shots in arms are needed to fend off community spread. Safe Access holds promise to help increase the vaccination rate while keeping establishments safer — and reduce the possibility of seeing more restrictive city orders imposed.

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