For Bruce Aidells, San Francisco’s mandate that restaurant customers be vaccinated was anything but a burden.

Aidells owns a sausage company, and his wife, Nancy Oakes, is a co-owner of Prospect and owner and executive chef of Boulevard. So Aidells has a personal stake in the Bay Area’s food scene.

“It’s not onerous,” he said of the mandate. “It reflects the public health crisis that we’re in.”

“It’s incredibly welcome, at least from our perspective,” Aidells added.

Restaurants like the Beet Box Cafe in Haleiwa took a hit in 2020 when they were forced to close and offer takeout only. Discussions of a vaccine mandate for customers and employees has restaurateurs concerned. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Restaurants in Hawaii have a much different view.

“What we are hearing from restaurateurs are that while they are concerned about the negative impact vaccination mandates would have on their business, they are supportive of people getting vaccinated,” says Ryan Tanaka, a Honolulu business consultant who is working with the Hawaii Restaurant Association.

So while other localities with big restaurant and tourism industries roll out mandates generally requiring customers to show proof of vaccination or sit outside, Hawaii is maintaining the status quo.

On Monday, Gov. David Ige took the dramatic step of asking visitors to quit coming to Hawaii. The governor also said Hawaii’s growing case load could at some point trigger restrictions on businesses and social activities.

On Wednesday, he told Hawaii News Now that the state is working on an electronic vaccine passport that restaurants and businesses could use voluntarily. Ige said he hoped the system would be in place by Labor Day.

Hawaii reported a seven-day average of 625 new cases per day on Wednesday, according to the Hawaii Department of Health, and about 62% of the population had been vaccinated.

Against this backdrop some leaders are calling for a middle path: something more than a request that tourists voluntarily quit traveling to Hawaii but less than a draconian closing of businesses. Hawaii House Speaker Scott Saiki on Tuesday renewed his call to Ige to establish a vaccine mandate for restaurant employees and guests.

“If the hospitalization numbers do not improve, then we’re probably headed for another shutdown,” he said.

Ige’s press secretary, Jodi Leong, said the governor has not changed plans since Monday, when he said he would not impose vaccine mandates.

Governor David Ige holds a press conference with Department of Education Superintendent Keith Hayashi and Department of Health Director Elizabeth Char.
Gov. David Ige has no plans to impose vaccine requirements on restaurant customers and workers, but some say such an interim measure could mitigate the need for more severe restrictions. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Meanwhile, for restaurants in cities that have mandated vaccines – for employees and customers – the result appears mixed.

Like San Francisco, New York has a restaurant vaccine mandate, and so does New Orleans.

Ian McNulty covers restaurants for The Advocate newspaper in New Orleans. Restaurateurs there initially welcomed the city-mandated rule, which went into effect Aug. 16, he said. But that’s changing as the eateries deal with the reality of implementing the policy.

“When the city announced its mandate, there was initially a sense of relief,” he said. “Many were worried about another lockdown or a restriction in capacity.” And for them, merely requiring vaccines seemed far better.

Now, restaurateurs and patrons have had time to see the effects of the policy, McNulty said, and opinions vary widely. Some restaurants complain they have lost business; others say they’re doing fine. Some customers are happy, others are in the streets protesting.

Although it’s hard to make generalizations, McNulty said restaurants that were happy with the change tended to be smaller neighborhood places with strong local followings, while the opponents tend to be big operations that need big numbers of diners each day, mainly tourists, to survive.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a po’boy joint or high-end eatery, he said, the response owners get depends a great deal on the customers. Some have been grateful for the added protections, he said, while others angrily confront staff.

“What we’ve seen is a mixed bag, frankly,” he said. “Some places say it’s been a breeze, some places say every other interaction has been a battle.”

Word of such confrontations worries restaurateurs in Hawaii, said the association’s Tanaka, who conducted a survey of members.

So does the specter of lost business from unvaccinated customers. Finally, there’s a fear that unvaccinated workers will quit in protest, which is no small problem at a time when good workers are hard to find.

Study: Most Employers Favor Vaccines For Employees

More nuanced findings emerged from a study on vaccine mandates for businesses conducted by the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization.

Led by Ruben Juarez, an economist, Alika Maunakea, a professor at UH’s John A. Burns School of Medicine and Dr. May Okihiro, who also teaches at JABSOM, the study obtained responses from 884 businesses, over 95% of them located on Oahu. About 73% of businesses in the survey had 10 or fewer employees, and 20 sectors were represented, including tourism, retail, and food and beverage.

Despite the restaurant association’s objection to vaccine mandates, the survey found 64.5% of businesses reported that they already do or likely will require employees to be vaccinated. In addition, the survey found large percentages of workers are vaccinated.

Council on Revenues Member Carl Bonham asks State Economist Eugene Tian about his presentation.
UHERO executive director Carl Bonham says concerns about the impact of vaccine mandates on employment may be overblown. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

More than 80% of businesses reported over 80% of their employees have been fully vaccinated, the study found.

Still, only 35.5% of businesses said they do require or likely will require a vaccine passport or negative test from clients, and 48.5% said they wouldn’t impose the requirement on customers.

Carl Bonham, UHERO’s executive director who is also a co-author of the study, said the report undermines the idea that businesses will suffer mass defections if they require employees to get shots. What’s more, if the government imposes vaccine requirements, individual businesses wouldn’t gain an advantage over others.

In fact, he said, business might increase from customers who are leery of going out to eat because they don’t feel safe.

Bonham agreed with Saiki that an incremental step taken early might have been a game changer.

“If we had implemented a vaccine passport two weeks ago, then maybe we wouldn’t be asking visitors to stay away, and we wouldn’t be having the surge in cases that we’re having,” he said.

And for food mavens who favor vaccine mandates, like Aidells, it’s not just about making customers feel safe. It’s also for employees. Knowing everyone in a restaurant has been vaccinated gives workers an added protection, he said.

“Of course it makes employees feel safer,” he said. “And the way my wife runs her restaurants, they are number one. The employees come first.”

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