On Oahu, visitors show vax records and businesses adapt to Covid rules

HONOLULU — On the first night of new regulations designed to beat back a pandemic surge, establishments throughout Waikiki looked more like exclusive nightclubs in South Beach or Las Vegas than resort-area restaurants.

But to get past the velvet ropes, bouncers were looking for vaccination cards or recent negative Covid-19 tests, not the best-dressed or those most likely to shell out for table service.

Under the Safe Access Oahu rules effective Sept. 13, all guests and employees at restaurants, bars, gyms, museums and other businesses and attractions across the island must show either proof of vaccination or a negative result on a Covid-19 test taken within 48 hours.

Unvaccinated employees must be tested once a week.

Bars and restaurants deployed barriers, tables and additional staff to their entrances to handle document checks. At Deck, inside the Queen Kapiolani Hotel, after vaccine or test records were verified, diners signed a ledger and provided an address for contact tracing, and they could stay for only 90 minutes. 

On Waikiki’s Kalakaua Avenue, dotted with luxury shops and hotels, a restaurant sign trumpeted a surf-and-turf special and, in bold letters, “All Employees Vaccinated.” At a sushi spot next door, a line formed to sit at one of its Plexiglas-enclosed tables.

Restaurants reported depressed sales in recent weeks, but the new regulations, coupled with capacity restrictions, created the effect that half-full Waikiki was as busy as ever. 

Michael Miller, director of operations at Tiki’s Grill and Bar on the Waikiki beachfront said he is hiring two staff members to beef up presence at the door.

“You’ve got to have the right person up front,” he said. “People are already stressed. They are jet-lagged and hangry on top of that. So you need to hire someone for the door who is an ambassador of aloha, someone who has the training and can start the customer experience off right.”

Ryan Tanaka, co-owner of Waikiki sports bar Giovanni Pastrami, said a few customers had to be turned away on the first day for not having the necessary documents.

“The majority of our clientele are tourists, and a lot don’t realize this is going on,” he said. “They’re not tracking rules county by county, and this is just Oahu. So they book a ticket to come to Hawaii, and they show up at a restaurant and we say, ‘Sorry, can you show us your vaccination card?’ There’s a little bit of a surprise factor.”

In general, restaurant owners said the first day went relatively smoothly, but Tanaka, who is also vice chairman of the Hawaii Restaurant Association, said members across the island were reporting a steep decline in foot traffic.

Vaccination rates rising among restaurant employees

Oahu’s new policy does seem to be spurring vaccinations among employees at the impacted businesses.

At Giovanni Pastrami, they expect to go from 83% of staff vaccinated to 95% in the next few weeks, but Tanaka added the new rules could exacerbate an ongoing labor shortage. 

“Not all employees are responding well to the policy,” he said. “What it’s doing is adding stress to an already stressed situation.” 

Miller said an additional 20 of his 110 staff members were motivated to get vaccinated recently, and he thought the new rules could boost hiring.

“In one way, it makes some of the staff feel a bit better about serving visitors,” he said.

In addition to labor woes, supply chain bottlenecks and the new vaccine mandate, Oahu restaurants were also hit with capacity reductions and a ban on large events in the past month. Also, in August, Gov. David Ige discouraged visitation to the Islands through the end of October.

“It’s definitely a frustrating time to be in the restaurant business,” said Tom Jones, co-owner of Gyotaku Japanese Restaurants. “For some restaurants, maybe they’ve been able to survive until now, but this next down period could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”

Attractions facing new rules, too

Indoor attractions, like museums, are also subject to the new rules. At Iolani Palace, more staff are manning the entrance for document checks, but executive director Paula Akana said the new protocols required minimal adjustments. 

“With the limited number of guests who can be accommodated during our tours each day, our ability to generate revenue from ticket sales has been impacted,” she said. “We’re down about 50% from the peak of summer travel as visitors cancel or postpone their trips to Hawaii.”

The Honolulu Museum of Art experienced a similar attendance drop, but reported a recent 10% bump in sales that the administration attributes to extended weekend and evening hours and new programming targeting residents. Roughly 98% of the museum staff is vaccinated, and a smooth transition to the new rules is anticipated.

Despite the struggles, everyone who commented for this report said they support the measures to arrest the surge in Covid-19 cases stretching Hawaii hospitals to their limits.

“It’s creating a strain on everyone, but it’s still better than a lockdown,” Tanaka said. “Given the alternatives, this is probably the best path forward for our community. I just hope that everyone makes it to the other side.” 

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