Recent comments by Hawaii House Speaker Scott Saiki and Lt. Gov. Josh Green over the possibility of vaccine mandates for private business have set off a flurry of discussions over widespread vaccination requirements for customers and employees in Hawaii. The top government officials have suggested that such a policy might be necessary to control the Covid-19 delta variant.
Now, business executives here are increasingly discussing the sorts of mandates imposed in New York and San Francisco, which include vaccine requirements for establishments like restaurants and gyms before customers can enter.
Gov. David Ige on Monday said his administration is exploring the possibility of an “electronic health pass,” but that it was not clear when such a pass could be ready.
“The Governor has directed the Office of Enterprise Technology Services (ETS) to explore the possibility of a health pass that could be used to enter establishments, etc.,” spokeswoman Jodi Leong said in a statement. “ETS is analyzing options and does not have a timeline for completion.”
The system would verify vaccine cards issued locally, nationally and internationally, Leong said.
In the meantime, some have said the spread of the virus appears to be affecting business already. That perception is supported by data that tracks things like restaurant reservations and how people move around the community doing things like shopping. Both metrics have leveled off and softened slightly in recent weeks, data shows. Hospital capacity also is being stressed.
“We are hearing more and more about perhaps a San Francisco or New York model,” said Sherry Menor-McNamara, president and chief executive of the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii. McNamara stressed the organization is still surveying members to see if there’s a consensus supporting such a policy, or any other policy to tamp down the pandemic.
But she said the idea of a government mandate is being increasingly discussed. One benefit is it would ensure consistent operating procedures, she said.
“Then you would have more consistency across the board,” she said.
“That’s something we’re looking at,” said Tina Yamaki, executive director of the state’s largest merchants’ association, Retail Merchants of Hawaii. “But we don’t have a position.”
Hawaii reported a seven-day average of 652 new cases per day between Aug. 8 and Aug. 14. Meanwhile, 7.5% of those who got tested were positive. Such numbers are the highest Hawaii has seen since the pandemic started in March 2020.
And while they would have warranted restrictions on social and business activities under Hawaii’s now abandoned tier system, state and local government officials have been reluctant to impose the sort of strict stay-at-home measures that defined past government responses.
On Friday, Saiki implored Ige to do more than what the governor has been doing, which is mainly to ask unvaccinated people to get shots and for everyone to be careful.
“To control COVID-19, the Governor needs to do more than request the public’s cooperation,” Saiki wrote. “The Governor should implement a health pass that will require persons to show proof of full vaccination to enter establishments, such as restaurants, gyms, and stores.”
On Saturday, Green told KHON news that more restrictions, including vaccine requirements, could be coming soon.
“If this continues and case counts continue to be this high, the mayors, the governor, are going to have to consider the following: they’re going to have to consider curfews, they’re going to have to consider scaling back people going into any place without a vaccination card,” he said. “That’s exactly the opposite of what the non-vaccinated community wants, so I’m not recommending these things, I’m saying this is reality.”
Ray Vara, who leads Hawaii’s largest hospital company as chief executive of Hawaii Pacific Health, said the key is to create incentives to encourage people to get vaccinated by giving only the vaccinated access to places like restaurants. Vara acknowledged hospitals are operating near capacity now because of the delta variant.
“I’ll call it a ‘rewards program,’” he said, explaining that a vaccine mandate would encourage people to get the vaccine while not punishing those who had gotten the shots the way widespread restrictions would.
Still, others aren’t sold on the idea. One challenge, said the retail merchants’ Yamaki, involves requiring businesses to enforce vaccine rules.
It’s often hard enough, she said, for retail staff to enforce mask mandates, which at times causes abusive responses from customers. A vaccine mandate might be even harder, she said.
“They also have to give us something to enforce it with,” she said.
Sheryl Matsuoka, executive director of the Hawaii Restaurant Association, said the industry has already suffered massive losses during the pandemic, including two orders shutting down dining rooms and allowing take-out only.
Hawaii’s reopening during the spring and summer brought business owners hope, she said, but that’s all changed in recent weeks as the pandemic has caused people to increasingly stay home. Data from the restaurant reservation site Open Table shows reservations declining recently after peaking around July 17.
“They’re afraid about the Covid numbers being higher,” she said of her members. “They don’t see an end in sight.”
Restaurants might support requiring customers to show a proof of vaccination, perhaps in exchange for a concession like the government allowing them to operate at 100% capacity, versus 50% which is now the case. But she said there’s still no consensus among members.
“That’s a conversation we’re having,” she said.
There’s also no consensus among hoteliers. Jerry Gibson, a longtime Hawaii hotel executive who is the founding president of the Hawaii Hotel Alliance, said he personally would support a vaccine mandate if that would make things safer. But he said it’s premature to say what if any position the Hawaii hotel industry would take.
But if there’s one lesson learned from the Covid-19 crisis, it’s that the economy and the virus are closely connected. So even when the government doesn’t impose restrictions, a runaway virus can still hurt businesses.
For example, Gibson acknowledged the Covid-19 delta variant appears to have started discouraging people from traveling, which is a bad sign for one of Hawaii’s largest employers. After being virtually shut down for much of 2020, many Hawaii hotels had enjoyed a remarkable rebound in the spring and summer, thanks largely to pent-up demand for travel from the U.S. mainland at a time when many destinations were viewed as unsafe or closed to travel.
With the summer now over and the softer, fall “shoulder season” approaching, hotels naturally expect less demand for rooms, Gibson said. But this year, thanks to delta, the group business that once would have boosted occupancy doesn’t exist. And, he said, hoteliers are seeing some leisure travelers cancel trips out of worry.
Industry executives have not chosen a plan to support, he said.
“We are talking to a lot of people about this,” he said.
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