Patrons of Honolulu restaurants, gyms, movie theaters and other businesses soon will have to show proof of Covid-19 vaccination or a recent negative virus test to gain admission, Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi announced Monday.

The new “Safe Access Oahu” program, which goes into effect on Sept. 13, marks the mayor’s most aggressive policy step to stem an escalation in coronavirus cases caused largely by the highly contagious delta variant.

Mayor Rick Blangiardi Vaccine Mandate
Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi, during a press conference at Mission Memorial Auditorium, said customers and employees of a wide range of businesses will have to be vaccinated starting Sept. 13. Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat /2021

It also ends weeks of speculation about whether the mayor would impose the rule, which some public officials had said appeared necessary to end a surge that is straining hospital capacity and leading Honolulu emergency officials to set up mobile morgues.

During his news conference, the mayor described recent days as the grimmest Hawaii has faced since the pandemic started in March 2020, and he stressed that the vaccine requirements are meant to avoid the more drastic measures that closed businesses, beaches and parks last year.

“We don’t want a lockdown,” Blangiardi said. “I am on the record as saying that. We don’t want a lockdown. But we need to all work together to make sure we don’t have to do that, and this is a good, safe way to get it done.”

The order, which will last for 60 days, applies to both patrons and employees of a wide range of establishments, including restaurants, bars, gyms, movie theaters, museums and arcades.

Blangiardi carved out numerous exceptions. For instance, vaccines aren’t required for employees, interns, volunteers and contractors who show weekly proof of a negative Covid-19 test result — molecular or antigen. The same goes for customers with proof of a negative Covid-19 test result taken within 48 hours of entry onto the covered premises.

It also doesn’t apply to children under 12 years old, customers going into a quick-service cafe or restaurant and remaining for less than 15 minutes, and food trucks and restaurants that operate solely for take-out or delivery.

Government and health authorities are struggling to persuade more people to get vaccinated, saying it’s the best way to avoid tighter restrictions. So far, 63.1% of the state’s population has been fully vaccinated, according to the Health Department.

The measure comes as the Hawaii restaurant industry has just started to regain its footing after a particularly difficult year, a point Blangiardi noted in stressing the city was not trying to hurt struggling businesses. For its part, the restaurant industry seemed to buy in.

Greg Maples, chairman of the powerful Hawaii Restaurant Association, shared the stage with Blangiardi during the event at the historic Mission Memorial Auditorium near Honolulu Hale.

Greg Maples
Greg Maples, chairman of the Hawaii Restaurant Association, said restaurants hope the order does not lead to further declines in business. Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat/2021

“If we continue to do what we’re doing, we’re going to continue to get what we’re getting,” Maples said. “And that is not acceptable.”

What Hawaii is getting is a troubling increase in cases. The state reported 720 new cases on Monday. That followed 1,678 new cases announced on Sunday, although that included several hundred backlogged cases.

The numbers are bad enough that earlier in the day, during a segment of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s “Spotlight” program, Lt. Gov. Josh Green called on the public to avoid Labor Day parties this weekend and to instead stay isolated in social bubbles with family and close friends.

Hospital intensive care units are headed toward their capacity, Green said, with 418 Covid cases in hospitals. If that goes to 500, the state might need to issue more stringent stay-at-home orders, he said. And big holiday gatherings will likely maintain the surge in cases.

“There’s just so much sense in having a quieter Labor Day weekend,” he said.

During an interview before the mayor’s press conference, Maples commended the mayor and Gov. David Ige for keeping the restaurant association in the loop during discussions about the vaccine passport policy.

However, Republican state Rep. Val Okimoto, the House minority leader, opposed the decision, saying it was “doubling down on the idea that government knows best.”

“Has this attitude worked so far? No. Common sense tells me that beating the same exhausting talking points to death is literally insanity,” she said, adding that she herself was fully vaccinated. “Common sense tells me that if you implement a policy that segregates the vaccinated (from) the unvaccinated, we’re inadvertently incentivizing the unvaccinated community to gather and spread COVID within their own communities.”

The state also allows travelers to present proof of vaccination or a negative test as a way to avoid quarantine upon arrival in the islands.

Although the return of tourists to Hawaii over the summer helped many restaurants rebound, the recovery has begun to soften, said Maples, who is also the vice president overseeing food services at the Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie.

Already restaurants were seeing a 25% decline in revenue, typical of late August, when summer travel trails off as kids go back to school, he said. But this year the numbers have been made worse by Ige’s request last week that visitors quit coming to Hawaii, Maples said.

The restaurants are concerned, Maples said, that the vaccine requirement will lead to further declines in business if unvaccinated people choose to stay home rather that get shots. But Maples acknowledged the opposite could happen: vaccinated people could go out more if they know everyone in a restaurant has had a shot.

“We don’t have data yet, but of course that’s our hope,” he said.

Hawaii House Speaker Scott Saiki also praised Blangiardi’s move. Saiki, who co-chairs the House Select Committee on Covid-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness, had called on officials to implement a vaccine mandate on Aug. 13, as the delta variant cases were starting to surge.

“I know that it was a difficult and complicated decision,” Saiki said in a statement. “The Mayor is being a leader and his decision will reduce Covid infections and avoid a complete statewide shutdown.”

Another early proponent of the vaccine passports was Carl Bonham, executive director of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization. Bonham also was one of several analysts who were holding out hope last week that new case counts were starting to flatten. But big numbers over the weekend dampened that optimistic view.

“People were definitely talking about it,” Bonham said of the idea Hawaii was possibly out of the woods. “But the people who were talking about it aren’t talking about it so much anymore.”

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