KILAUEA, Kauai — Three restaurants and a liquor store on the North Shore here have posted signs and instituted practices to make clear to tourists and locals who have traveled recently that they can’t be seated until they undergo 14-day quarantines.
But whether the restrictions would develop into an islandwide or statewide trend remained unclear on Tuesday.
Two of the restaurants and the liquor store have a common owner, Matt Ernsdorf, one of Kauai’s most respected restaurateurs. The third restaurant, Saenz Ohana Breakfast, is actually a trailer that operates from a parking lot behind an urgent care clinic in nearby Princeville. It has two tables sheltered by a tent.
Saenz Ohana Breakfast is owned and operated by Juan Saenz, who previously worked as a chef at a number of high-profile local eateries.
Both Saenz and Ernsdorf instituted their policies last week, unprepared, both said, for an outpouring of media and public attention. Early reports described what was happening as a tourist ban, but in all four cases, the eateries and the store are accepting online orders from all customers and delivering the food and booze curbside.
While some social media observers accused the two owners of discrimination, local activists and other observers contended Tuesday that the practice of barring people who may have traveled recently and may even have tested negative for COVID-19 is a wise public health precaution.
In a statement, the office of Mayor Derek Kawakami said the county had received no formal complaints and had not inquired further about reports of the decisions by the restaurants and store.
“Private businesses are implementing their own precautions, such as restricting people who traveled in the past 14 days to enter their business,” said Sarah Blane, Kawakami’s chief of staff, in a statement. “From what we understand this policy applies to everyone, including employees, residents and visitors. While we appreciate businesses taking precautions, we would reiterate that the best way for businesses, employees and patrons to protect themselves is to wear masks, keep a physical distance from people outside of your household or travel party, and wash and sanitize your hands and shared surfaces often. We know these to be the best risk-mitigation tools we have available to us.”
Social media postings were overwhelmingly supportive of the steps taken by the two owners. The support apparently grew out of frustration that state officials denied Kauai County’s request to implement a stricter protocol that would have required a brief quarantine period and a second test before people could move freely around on the island.
Putting rules in place barring recent travelers — regardless of whether they are visitors or local residents — began last week when Ernsdorf posted a sign outside the Kilauea Bistro, his flagship restaurant, reading: “Attention Bistro patrons: Recent unquarantined travelers, do not enter. You are welcome back post 14-day quarantine.”
Ernsdorf also owns Palate, a wine bar and restaurant in the same small shopping complex in Kilauea town and the liquor store, which is immediately next door. Ernsdorf said his decision came about two weeks ago after employees expressed concerns about their personal and family safety if they were exposed to recent travelers whose COVID-19 infections might escape detection in the state’s loose travel restrictions.
Like most of the businesses in the Kong Lung Center, the small shopping center where the Bistro, Palate and the liquor store are located, Ernsdorf’s establishments rely heavily on local trade. Many of the customers are local regulars and they kept the Bistro, in particular, at least viable after it reopened at the end of COVID-19 closure orders.
If social media posts are any measure, many local residents have suspended visiting restaurants and other activities outside the home until the impact of the return of large numbers of visitors becomes clearer in terms of additional reported cases of COVID-19.
“It’s a safety issue,” Ernsdorf said. As tourism has started reopening, he said, he’s heard from some employees he had to lay off several months ago who left Kauai, but returned recently and inquired about getting their jobs back. “I had to tell them, call me in 14 days,” Ernsdorf said.
Saenz instituted the traveler restrictions at Saena Ohana Breakfast about the same time Ernsdorf did. He said he was upset when initial media coverage assumed he had banned tourists entirely.
“We are not denying service to anyone. We are open and asking that anyone who has traveled within the last 14 days to please order online,” Saenz said via text. “We are taking these steps to keep ourselves, community and customers safe during this pandemic.”
Fern Anuenue Holland, a prominent local activist who has worked at restaurant jobs herself, said in an email, “I support a business’s right to refuse service to anyone, especially during these times. Different people and staff have different risk levels for COVID.
“I would say it is not discrimination. How would that be different from refusing service to someone not wearing a mask? With the amount of outright COVID deniers, anti-maskers and plandemic believers that we are dealing with in this country, we are the worst in the world right now.”
Makaala Kaaumoana, another local activist and head of the Hanalei Watershed Hui, had a similar perspective. “I think any business has the right and responsibility to provide their service in the safest way possible,” she said via email.
“Some tourists are not being respectful to tradespeople such as bartenders and service folks. So, if I owned a restaurant, I would minimize exposure by providing parking lot delivery and avoiding encounters.”
There was no evidence — at least as of Tuesday afternoon — that the North Shore restaurant decisions were picking up momentum elsewhere on island.
Jimit Mehta, owner of Kalypso in Hanalei, which reopened a couple of weeks ago, said he would not bar recent travelers, but instead would follow Hawaii Department of Health protocols requiring masking, social distancing, handwashing and other personal hygiene practices.
Checks of six other Hanalei restaurants Tuesday morning found all were still adhering to strict rules mandating masking and other precautions.
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