Under Mayor Michael Victorino’s “Safer Outside” initiative, restaurants and bars will close early, no spectators will be allowed at sporting events and proof of vaccination will be required at restaurants, bars and gyms.
Victorino unveiled a portion of the initiative Tuesday during the county’s news conference but said more details need to be worked out and will be shared at a later date. The approved emergency rules are set to go into effect on Sept. 15 and include options for the unvaccinated or those without proof of vaccination to dine outside, order takeout or do drive-thru at restaurants.
“We considered many other changes and this is the first step. With the numbers we have right now, barring total shutdown, so these are options, these methods that we believe can level the curve and hopefully start to bring the numbers down,” Victorino said in explaining why he is tightening up the rules. “If the numbers don’t come down over the next 30 days, we may have to implement stricter rules and stricter mandates.”
Over the past two weeks, Maui County has been averaging 83 new cases daily for a test positivity rate of 6.4 percent, according to state Department of Health. Oahu is averaging 477 new cases a day, while Hawaii island is seeing 104 new cases daily and Kauai is facing 43 new cases a day as the state battles a delta variant-fueled surge.
“And even with this mandate people are upset. They are calling me, or threatening,” Victorino said.
However, he pointed to the uptick in deaths and said that the hospital has been overwhelmed at times but has been doing a great job.
“But how long can we keep this up?” he asked. “To be honest with you, this is a compromise we came up with and we mirrored a lot of what Oahu did because they have the same problem and others are doing very similar takes without totally shutting down.”
Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi recently announced a “Safe Access Oahu” program that begins on Sept. 13. It is a stricter initiative with a mandate that employees, contractors and volunteers of restaurants, bars, gyms, movie theaters, museums, arcades and other similar businesses be vaccinated or show proof of a negative COVID-19 test each week. There is also no exemption for outdoor dining.
Maui County Managing Director Sandy Baz said there are other emergency rules that will be implemented in Maui County, such as making bars and restaurants close at 10 p.m. and requiring producers of commercial events to apply for an exemption if the event is planned for more than 50 people.
Restaurants, bars and gyms will continue to operate at 50 percent capacity. The proof of vaccination requirement will only apply to those ages 12 and older. Those under 12 are not yet eligible to be vaccinated.
Permitted proof of vaccination includes vaccination cards — whether in physical or digital format or as an original photocopy — or documentation from a health care provider, Baz said.
The county will also not allow more than 10 people for outdoor social gatherings or more than five people for indoor social gatherings. Currently, outdoor social gatherings are limited to 25 and indoor gatherings are limited to 10.
Rules for commercial recreational boating tours, as well as ground transportation and commercial tours, will also be tightened. Starting Sept. 15, their limits will be lowered from 75 percent to 50 percent capacity.
Not allowing spectators indoors or outdoors at sporting events was a “compromise,” Baz said, as Victorino wanted to make sure children will be able to play sports while not allowing spectators to gather.
Baz said the vaccination requirements were set at “high-risk” businesses and the state Health Department is in support of it.
Restaurants, for example, are more high risk because customers take off their masks while eating and may forget to put them back on, as opposed to a place like a grocery store, where shoppers keep their masks on at all times.
With the rules going into effect in about a week, Victorino said he believes that there is enough time for businesses to prepare, as the county has been trying to warn different business groups that the change was coming. Even though some proposals have morphed over time, the “basic concept has been there.”
When it comes to enforcement, Victorino said that bars will be monitored by the county Department of Liquor Control. As for the restaurants, he hopes “they will do the right thing.” He added that the Health Department will “go out when they can” to monitor the situation.
Some have mixed feelings about the vaccination requirements, which county and state officials have talked about for months but haven’t taken steps to implement until the recent spike in cases.
“Many of Hawaii’s hospitals are running over capacity or very close to it. We are very supportive of any initiatives that incentivize vaccinations, reduce indoor gatherings or help stop the spread of COVID-19,” said Hilton Raethel, president and chief executive officer of the Healthcare Association of Hawaii.
He added that approximately 87 percent of current hospitalized COVID patients are unvaccinated, though two months ago it was close to 95 percent.
“However, as the delta variant continues to spread among the unvaccinated population, the number of vaccinated people getting infected has risen, and some of them end up in the hospital,” Raethel added.
Keli’i Akina, president and CEO of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, said there are “many relief efforts” that Maui’s leaders could focus on to help the overburdened health care system, but said the vaccination requirement should not be one of them.
“Mayor Mike Victorino recently said he most likely would allow private businesses to decide whether their employees would need to be vaccinated, as opposed to being forced by a government mandate. We hope he follows through with that,” Akina said. “It would be important and commendable acknowledgment of property rights and personal choice. By the same token, Mayor Victorino should also give private businesses the latitude to determine how best to protect the health of their customers, without requiring those businesses to enforce a government vaccine mandate.”
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at [email protected]