When asked about Honolulu’s new vaccine mandate for restaurants, which went into effect on Monday, Joseph Williams, the manager of Hale Vietnam Restaurant in Kaimuki, summed up the feelings of more than a few of his fellow restaurateurs.

“It’s a bit humbug asking for the card,” Williams said, speaking of the proof-of-vaccination card patrons now must show for dine-in service under the new city law. “But it’s better than closing down.”

Some 18 months into the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s come to this for Honolulu’s beleaguered restaurants: at least they’re not being required to close again.

Instead, under Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s order, restaurant customers can dine at restaurants only if the customers have shown proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test taken within 48 hours. And it’s up to restaurant staff to enforce the order.

Happy Days Chinese
Business was slow on Monday at Happy Days Chinese Seafood restaurant, owner Lisa Lum said. But the vaccine mandate was proving fairly simple to enforce. Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat

It’s too early to tell what effect the rule is having on Oahu eateries, said Greg Maples, chairman of the Hawaii Restaurant Association.

“We’re holding our breath and waiting and seeing,” said Maples, who is also director of restaurant services for the Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie.

One thing that is clear is that restaurants overall are facing a decline in business, largely attributed to a drop in tourism as the summer travel boom has ebbed and kids have gone back to school.

In early August, Hawaii passenger arrivals topped 35,000 on some days, which approached the daily levels Hawaii had during 2019’s record year. On Sunday, by contrast, Hawaii had 17,877 arrivals, according to the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

This means restaurants must rely more than ever on local business, says Sheryl Matsuoka, the restaurant association’s executive director.

“Because we don’t have tourists, we’re relying on the community,” she said.

If restaurants that serve mainly the community are an indication, the vaccine mandate seems to be rolling out smoothly, even if business is slow, according to several of Hale Vietnam’s neighbors in Kaimuki.

Next door at Via Gelato, for example, Emily Nakasone, a shift leader working the early afternoon slot, said the one customer who had wanted to eat inside had no problem providing a vaccine card and identification.

And neither had the customers hunched over laptops and lattes at Coffee Talk on the corner of Waialae and 12th Avenues, according to Lane Yasuda, a barista on duty there at midday.

That’s not to say business was booming in Kaimuki’s district of mostly mom-and-pop restaurants. At Kim Chee II, staff were replacing a handmade sign on the door with a more formal one letting people know the rule: no vaccine — no service, at least indoors; takeout was still fine without producing a card.

Nick Chun, the acting manager, said he had gotten calls earlier in the morning from customers about the vaccine requirement and that the restaurant staff had been “playing it by ear” to see how the rule would affect business. Sunday had been OK he said. But at 1 p.m. on Monday only four tables were occupied.

Kim Chee II Vaccine Mandate Sign
Staff at Kim Chee II posted a sign of the times on Monday. Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat

Likewise, at Happy Days down the street on Waialae, business for lunchtime dim sum was “very slow,” said Lisa Lum, the restaurant’s owner.

All of the larger, 10-seat tables were empty around noon. Only a handful of two- and four-seat tables were occupied. For staff and the patrons who did show up, Lum said, the vaccine mandate was not too much of a problem to enforce.

“We just have to make sure they’ve got the card,” she said.

Of course, that’s not always so easy. Even with two weeks’ notice, many diners simply don’t know about the mandate, said Matsuoka. And even some that do know apparently haven’t gotten into the habit of carrying their vaccine card.

Such was the case for a couple who tried to eat at Noods Ramen Bar on Waialae on Monday. When the couple entered, server Mari Tadaki asked if they had their vaccine cards. Only one was carrying hers, and the couple promptly left.

“It’s not helpful to small businesses,” Tadaki said.

Bigger businesses like the Polynesian Cultural Center have resources to deal with such challenges. For example, Maples said, the center, which also falls under the city mandate, provides 15-minute antigen tests for people who forgot their vaccine cards or are not vaccinated, Maples said.

The center’s stand-alone restaurant also offers the tests, Maples said.

Nonetheless, Maples said at the cultural center’s Pounders restaurant sales were down about 50% on Monday and the restaurant had to turn away about 20 people. Still, he said, even those who were turned away understood that the restaurant was not to blame for the rule.

“Most people understand this was done to the restaurants,” he said. “This wasn’t the restaurants doing it.”

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