Hawaii residents love to be out and about during their free time, whether that’s a stop for a bite or drink, a movie or a workout at the gym. And tourists, in vacation mode 24/7, are looking for just those diversions while they’re here.
In addition to all other miseries it’s inflicted, COVID-19 has thrown a monkeywrench into such casual fun as well. Environments where there’s eating and drinking and other close contact are also optimal spaces where a respiratory illness can spread easily, with potentially fatal results and a dire effect on the state’s strained health-care system.
Safe Access Oahu and a similar program on Maui, Safer Outside, aim to enable this recreational category of businesses to serve customers within a layer of pandemic protection. With additional vaccination-or-testing mandates placed on employees as well, this approach must be carefully monitored to measure its effect on the businesses as well as on curbing the spread of disease.
After Week One, there are some encouraging, if anecdotal, signs for the Oahu program, which has a 60-day test phase. Initial spot-checks by police have turned up few problems, though it’s still early. And some tourists who arrived after pre-travel COVID-19 testing, have said they wished they had been vaccinated rather than meet current hurdles of a negative test every 48 hours in order to visit a restricted venue. That persuasive effect is part of the intent.
But there’s clearly work to do: The city needs to be thorough about gathering metrics on business and public health.
Greg Maples, Hawaii Restaurant Association chairman, said many restaurants have opted for a takeout-only operation to avoid the whole issue, adding that so far eateries are reporting some staffing cuts and a drop in sales in the 25-50% range. After some initial pushback, customers generally have accepted the change, he added.
City officials have said they are working on an education program to inform prospective tourists on their options, pre-arrival. Mufi Hannemann, president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, said the challenge for outreach comes from the array of regulations that vary from county to county. Complications aside, better communication efforts need to ramp up quickly.
Further, the ongoing protests staged by critics of Safe Access bring additional pressure to relax the program once it’s met its primary objectives.
If, as hoped, the program promotes vaccinations and helps to significantly reduce the rate of new infections and hospitalizations, it will be achieving the needed goal.
The Maui program, which went into effect on Wednesday, restricts indoor dining and bar seating to those who prove vaccination or negative test results for COVID-19. Capacity is cut to 50%, but unvaccinated customers who can find outdoor seating can dine or drink on premises.
The Oahu initiative today has been running for a full week, and it is more restrictive. Those who can’t document their full vaccination status or deliver a current negative test are admitted only for takeout service, within a window of 15 minutes, maximum. Maples said outdoor dining privileges should be made more accessible on Oahu as well, which is an apt suggestion.
There was welcome news last week of expanded access to free testing, at four new sites on Oahu. This is crucial for meeting the growing demand for routine testing that these mandates, and other government-work ones, now require in lieu of vaccination.
While Safe Access is in play, the city should keep the lines open on ways to smooth out kinks. And residents should find ways to support their neighborhood businesses within this temporary framework. We are all in this together.