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County seeks to stop bar service for two-week stint

Mayor hopes that temporary closure will stop uptick in cases

Patrons sit at the bar in Haui’s Life’s A Beach restaurant and bar Wednesday afternoon in Kihei. Mayor Michael Victorino is asking the governor to allow Maui County to shut down bars and bar service areas after a recent string of COVID-19 cases that officials say have been linked to bars. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

Maui County is seeking to close down bars and bar service areas for two weeks to try and stop the uptick in COVID-19 cases that officials say are coming from “bar-like” behavior.

Mayor Michael Victorino said the county still needs to get approval from Gov. David Ige, but if the request is granted, the shutdown would go into effect from 12:01 a.m. Saturday through Dec. 26.

“The rationale behind this is above almost 35 to 40 percent of the latest outbreak have been bar-related activities or bar hopping,” Victorino told The Maui News on Wednesday afternoon. “We felt that (closing bars) was prudent at this point because the numbers have stayed double digits pretty much consistently.”

The mayor later added in a news release that “this is an initial step.”

“We will continue to closely monitor daily case counts, identify sources of spread and take further action as necessary to protect the health and safety of our residents,” he said.

A patron exits the Tiki Lounge in Kihei on Wednesday afternoon. If Maui County’s request to shut down bars is approved, restaurants would have to close their bar counters but could still serve alcohol to customers at tables.

Managing Director Sandy Baz said during the county news conference on Wednesday that bars with commercial kitchens would not need to close, but that their bar services areas, such as counters, would need to be shut down.

“You can still serve liquor at tables,” Baz said.

He added that if all restaurants and bars could also lower the volume of their music, it would also prevent people from shouting.

Maui District Health Officer Dr. Lorrin Pang has said over the past week that when people talk loud or shout without their mask, it increases the chances of COVID-19 spreading. He has also repeatedly said that bar-like behavior — sitting, eating or drinking and talking for hours — can also increase the spread of the virus.

On Wednesday, Pang said that bar hopping also can pose a greater risk as customers go from location to location and interact with different groups.

Officials are trying to crack down on health violations at bars; recently the Lava Rock Bar & Grill in Kihei was shut down for 24 hours after liquor control officers observed ongoing social distancing violations Friday night.

Some bar owners said that they could handle a two-week closure.

Hang Loose Lounge owner Brad McGrath took the news of possibly shutting down again in stride.

“I think it’s a good idea,” McGrath said outside his bar in Kahului Wednesday afternoon. “I think the mayor is smart.”

McGrath said he couldn’t speak for his customers, but that they would probably miss each other during the possible two-week closure. He doesn’t have a commercial kitchen, so his bar would be forced to close.

Hang Loose Lounge shut down with other nonessential businesses in March. Bars were among the last to reopen in June with social distancing and capacity limits.

But McGrath said he was thankful for the help of the federal Paycheck Protection Program along with various grants given out by the county, which he also received.

“It helped a lot,” he said.

McGrath said he will still need to pay the bills. When asked if he could make it through a two-week closure, McGrath said he would because he has “saved everything we can.”

Kahului Ale House owner Brad Sundin also said “we should be OK.”

He will still be able to maintain his restaurant area but will have to close up his liquor-serving counter, which has already been shut down since October. He instead put up more tables.

Sundin thought that maybe he would put up some Plexiglas on the bar service counter as well. He may have to get a staff member to run out the drinks since the bartender will not be able to pass drinks over the counter if the emergency rule is in place.

The eatery and bar did major renovations before opening up in June with dividers and even ultraviolet lights to sanitize.

Soon it will also put a QR code on its tables, which people can scan with their phones and access a link to the restaurant’s menu. This will eliminate the need for physical menus, which have to be cleaned after each use, Sundin said.

Other places have already closed temporarily due to COVID cases. Dollies Pub and Cafe in Kahana said on its Facebook page that it was closed Tuesday and Wednesday due to a COVID-19 outbreak. The business said Wednesday that it planned to reopen at 11 a.m. Monday unless the state Department of Health orders otherwise.

“We hope that you understand and we apologize for the inconvenience but the safety of our guest and staff are our number one priority,” the business said.

Baz also said Wednesday that the county has received approval for stricter mask rules, and that restaurant customers now need to wear their mask at all times and can only remove it while actively eating or drinking. This is to prevent spread when talking story or while not eating or drinking, he added.

Employees are still required to wear proper face coverings at all times, according to the county’s news release.

Baz said updates to emergency rules were also made to weddings and commercial tours. For example, commercial tour operators must make sure that their vehicle capacity does not exceed 50 percent, Baz. Other updates and clarifications will be posted at mauicounty.gov.

The county also announced that another drive-thru COVID-19 testing event will be held from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesday at the Pauwela Cannery in Haiku.

Participants must pre-register at minitmed.com/pre-register-maui-covid-19.

For more information or for problems registering, call 667-6161, ext. 7.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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