Hawaii eating places may evade altering pandemic guidelines beneath the proposed program

Few industries suffered more than Hawaii’s restaurants during the COVID-19 crisis. They were subject to government restrictions – including forced closings, takeout-only orders, limited seating, and the like – that have made it a challenge to stay open over the past year.

But now business leaders and policymakers are working to put together a program that will give restaurateurs more security. How close the program is to the assumption is not clear. However, it has at least made it to the desk of Attorney General Clare Connors, whose office is investigating it for legal pitfalls.

As part of the program, restaurants would not be subject to the so-called animal systems, which place changing restrictions on companies if they agree to adopt operating guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and undergo inspections by the Hawaiian Department of Health .

Robert Yamazaki, owner of Yakitori Hachibei on Hotel Street, helped devise a plan to offer restaurants a way through the pandemic. Stewart Yerton / Civil Beat

“We’ve been around since October, trying to remove the good players from the ups and downs of the tier system,” said Senator Glenn Wakai, chairman of the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Tourism and Technology. The result is that restaurants could stay open at their current capacity even if COVID-19 cases rise and Honolulu, for example, imposes new restrictions.

Wakai credited Rep. Sylvia Luke, chair of the House Finance Committee, for pushing the program forward by finding money in the Department of Health’s coffers to hire additional inspectors needed to make sure the participating restaurants meet the requirements. Luke did not return any comments.

Sherry Menor-McNamara, president and executive director of the Hawaii Chamber of Commerce, said the initiative, known as the Mana Program, would allow companies in trouble to avoid the risk of new restrictions that could violate them while barely entering water.

As difficult as the COVID-19 restrictions were in general, the changes in direction were difficult – especially for restaurants that in the past had to throw away perishable food when they were beaten with new restrictions that led to a drop in capacity.

With cases rising in Hawaii, the specter of new restrictions looms.

“Reversing course would definitely be detrimental to our business,” she said. “Some barely swim, others drown.”

The program could be expanded beyond restaurants

Menor-McNamara certified the start of the program to Honolulu restaurateur Robert Yamazaki, owner of Yakitori Hachibei on Hotel Street. Menor-McNamara and Wakai describe Yamazaki as a classic citizen activist who drives a program from the grassroots.

In an interview, Yamazaki said restaurants like his were hurt by an initial shutdown in March 2020. However, he said the biggest blow came in the summer after restrictions were eased and a fresh surge in cases led to renewed business restrictions. He said he started working on the plan because it seemed more practical than just protesting.

For Yamazaki, the goal was to protect the restaurant’s staff and guests. To this end, he set up numerous procedures, including temperature checks for employees before and after shifts.

Yamazaki’s efforts began to take hold, he said, as he connected with Menor-McNamara. He began working with others on the Chamber’s Small Business Action Committee, which included other individuals subject to animal system restrictions such as florists, wedding planners, and salon owners.

“It was refreshing to bring together small businesses that had a common goal,” he said.

This led to an audience with state officials such as Luke and Wakai, as well as Governor David Ige.

Iges office did not respond to requests for comment. However, Krishna Jayaram, a spokesman for Hawaii Attorney General Clare Connors, confirmed the office is involved.

While limited to restaurants, Wakai said the program could be expanded to other industries overseen by the Department of Commerce and Consumer Protection’s professional and professional licensing division. These include professions such as sports trainers, hairdressers and massage therapists.

Wakai emphasized that the mana program is voluntary. Companies that participate simply avoid restrictions under the tier systems that more or less impose restrictions on companies, depending on metrics such as the number of new COVID-19 cases.

Greg Maples, chairman of the Hawaii Restaurant Association, said he hoped state and local government officials did not impose additional restrictions and that the Mana program will be something restaurants have “in their back pockets” just in case that the localities go back to previous restrictions.

“I don’t assume we’ll be going back,” he said. “But who expected the pandemic a year ago?”

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