Restaurant association head calls for end to state restrictions

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Soni Pomaski shows Barbara Houston the bottled lychee cocktail from Moon and Turtle in Hilo on July 7.

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald People wait for their food outside of the Tuk-Tuk Thai Food Truck in Volcano on July 9.

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Alysse Winston serves saimin to a table while working at Ken's House of Pancakes in Hilo earlier this month

The chairman of the Hawaii Restaurant Association said it’s time for Gov. David Ige and the counties’ mayors to lift restrictions on the state’s eateries and retail outlets.

“We’re asking for the government to take a bow for the great things that they’ve done and give us back the steering wheel,” Greg Maples said during a livestream Monday. “It’s time for us, the owners, operators and entrepreneurs to have the businesses back. We appreciate what’s been done, but we can take it from here.”

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Maples call to action comes amidst an uptick in recent COVID-19 cases plus concerns about the highly contagious Delta variant of the novel coronavirus in the community.

As of Sunday, according to the state Department of Health, 59.3% of Hawaii residents have been fully vaccinated against the virus, with 65.7% partially vaccinated.

“Fully vaccinated” means an individual has received two shots of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine plus two weeks since the final inoculation.

Ige has set a benchmark of 70% of the population being fully vaccinated before he calls for an end to all emergency restrictions that have been in place since the global pandemic made itself felt in Hawaii in March 2020.

Meanwhile, even with the return of visitors to the islands — there were 34,537 trans-Pacific air arrivals Sunday, including 4,150 on the Big Island — restaurants and retail outlets continue to struggle.

“Buyers are not just buying the way they used to,” said Tina Yamaki, president of the Retail Merchants of Hawaii, during the same livestream. “We’re seeing more people and more traffic coming into the stores, but they’re much more discerning on what they buy. They’re looking for the great sale and the deep discounts. Even with a lot of the mainland visitors coming back now, they’re not spending like they used to. It’s a different type of visitor that’s here.”

She said retailers are “still very much struggling, even to pay their bills.”

According to Maples, despite public demand for restaurant meals, staffing issues and social distancing requirements are contributing to a slow recovery of from malaise the industry has experienced since the shutdown of bars and restaurants early in the pandemic.

“We’re seeing a lot of capacity issues because we have a lot of tourism going on right now. … So we have long waits at restaurants,” he said. “It’s a different kind of tourist that we have here —which isn’t necessarily a good thing or a bad thing, it’s just that they’re different. Their expectations are different.

“So restaurants are struggling. It’s a very, very hard business to be in as we wrap up and go to the twilight part of the pandemic.”

Both said retailers and restaurants are still having hiring issues, which includes laid-off employees declining to return to their old jobs.

“What has happened is, with the ($300 weekly unemployment insurance) plus-up and all the federal money coming into people’s pockets, they’re making more by staying at home, so they don’t want to come to work right now,” Yamaki said. “So what we have done is we’ve been hiring high school students. But with school coming back in, they’re not going to be able to work the morning shift. It’s going to be more after school. So we’re still struggling, and we’re hoping when the plus-up goes away in September, more people are going to be apt to look for a job.”

“Since we’re all battling for the same pool of employees, you’ve seen wages go up,” Maples added. “You know that, eventually, there’s going to be a minimum wage increase. That’s going to be less impactful as we go on because … we’ve had to give higher wages to people we normally wouldn’t give them to, just to get them to come to work.”

Maples said restrictions on restaurants and other businesses need to be relaxed, regardless of infection numbers and viral variants, to both meet the demands of consumers and to improve the economic outlook for the businesses themselves.

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“We’re going to have spikes; we’re going to see triple-digits,” he said, referring to the daily count of new infection cases. “But what we need now after 15, going on 16 months of government intervention, is for them to trust that we’ve got this, and to give it back to us and let us go forward.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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