DOH, county work to enforce virus mitigation rules

  • ANDERSON

The state Department of Health will take a tougher stance against restaurants not following COVID-19 mitigation policies as the number of coronavirus cases continues to rise throughout the state.

Under a new DOH enforcement program, food establishments that fail to comply with physical distancing and other requirements can be temporarily shut down. The program, which went into effect Thursday, is intended to improve the state’s readiness for increased travel beginning Aug. 1, when travel restrictions are scheduled to be loosened for trans-Pacific visitors.

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The program operates under a two-strike system. The DOH will issue a written warning to an establishment after its initial violation and educate the business about the department’s recommendation.

Any subsequent violation will result in the DOH issuing the offending business a red placard, resulting in the immediate closure of the business. The establishment can request a re-inspection, which might allow the business to reopen if it is found to be compliant again.

“Most food establishments in Hawaii are conscientious and trying their best to comply with health guidance,” said state Health Director Bruce Anderson in a statement. “Nevertheless, we feel these steps are necessary to assure all restaurants and other food establishments are doing everything they can to protect the health of the public and their employees.”

Robert Perreira, deputy fire chief for the Hawaii Fire Department, said the DOH’s new policies will be implemented into the county’s COVID-19 Prevention and Education Task Force — which he also leads — although he added that relatively few businesses in the county have been repeat violators.

“For us, the first step is education,” said Perreira, who took over from now-retired deputy fire chief Lance Uchida at the end of June. “We make sure they know what they did wrong, and sometimes we help them with problems they might have, like they have trouble getting enough products, like sanitation products.”

If a business is repeatedly noncompliant, Perreira said the complaint will be brought to the Office of the Corporation Counsel, which will work with police to potentially enforce penalties.

“As far as I know, I know of only one case we’ve bounced to Corporation Counsel,” Perreira said. “And they’ve been compliant ever since, and they didn’t have to impose penalties, I think.”

As for the new DOH enforcement program, Perreira said the county task force has largely left the work of ensuring compliance by food establishments to the DOH already, since the state agency has a robust infrastructure already in place for inspecting restaurants and bars. However, he added, the task force will continue to assist the DOH in inspecting establishments and responding to complaints as needed.

“Initially, businesses were very compliant, but we’ve seen (noncompliance) increasing as time went on,” Perreira said. “People have let their guard down. We’re not at a high level of complaints, but there’s a noticeable difference between the number of complaints between June and July.”

Perreira said the new requirements by the DOH will help people remain vigilant for a potential new wave of cases if travel restrictions loosen in August.

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“People need to remember, you’re your own best protectors,” Perreira said.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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