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Changing of restaurant rules ‘definitely killing us’

Local restaurants and bars adapt to further county restrictions

Leilani’s on the Beach is open for business Tuesday. Restaurants are having to follow new county rules that limit occupancy to 30 percent. Outdoor dining areas are not subject to capacity limits, but must adhere to CDC guidelines for at least a 6-foot separation between tables and chairs. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Local bar and restaurant owners say the ever-changing rules and new restrictions placed on their businesses are growing more difficult, with one owner saying “it’s definitely killing us.”

On Saturday, new county rules took effect that reduce inside occupancy from 50 to 30 percent for bars and restaurants and require closures by 10 p.m each night. This was in addition to bars being asked to shut down for two weeks leading up to Christmas, as county and state Department of Health officials pointed to COVID-19 clusters attributed to bars and “bar-like” behavior. The county said it made its decision based on DOH cluster reports.

“It’s definitely killing us,” said Sumner Stewart, co-owner of Kahale’s, Maui’s Local Dive Bar, in Kihei.

He said he knew of about eight bars that were totally shut down in the December mandate, while establishments with commercial kitchens were allowed to stay open but couldn’t serve liquor at a bar counter.

“But we come out of that, to just come back right into it,” Stewart said of the recent reduction in capacity.

Jasmine Juan, daughter of the owners of Ichiban Restaurant Maui, poses in the dining room of the Kahului restaurant. With the county reducing capacity of indoor dining to 30 percent, Juan said they had to pull more tables from the restaurant floor. JASMINE JUAN photo

He said the limited capacity may not hurt larger venues but strikes a blow to his and other small mom-and-pop businesses. At Kahale’s, 100 percent capacity is 77 people. The reduction to 30 percent now amounts to around 23 people he can have in the bar. Co-owner Katie Karsten said the bar cannot make a go of it with just 30 percent occupancy.

Stewart said that with both the 50 and 30 percent occupancy limits they had to turn away customers from the 27-year-old establishment.

He added that the bar has taken precautions and is cleaning thoroughly, and that it also chose to shut down on its own when there were cases at Kihei Kalama Village, where Kahale’s is located. There were no cases linked to his establishment but he said they took the initiative to close and clean and test their employees.

He also took issue with the county saying that “bar-like” behavior has led to COVID-19 cases, as he felt that made people afraid of going out.

County and state officials have said that behaviors such as eating, drinking and talking for hours without a mask as well as talking loud or yelling in places with loud music could be attributed to some clusters.

Patrons in Kahale’s, Maui’s Local Dive Bar, enjoy their drinks while masking up in this Dec. 10 photo. Bars and restaurants can now only operate at 30 percent capacity under new rules that began Saturday. SUMNER STEWART photo

The county said in a Facebook post that it examined a DOH cluster report on Dec. 24 when making the latest decision on restaurant and bar capacity. The statistics showed that over a two-week period there were two clusters related to bars with a total of 13 cases. There were three clusters related to restaurants for a total of 29 cases.

Maui County has seen a recent surge of cases, going from 150 in November to 485 in December, with the vast majority on Maui, DOH data show.

Mayor Michael Victorino said the county has not received any reports of community spread from retail establishments on Maui. He added that big box stores are operating at 50 percent or less of maximum capacity and that smaller shops and stores regularly monitor and restrict capacity.

The mayor said that instead of closing down restaurants, he chose to further limit capacity while relaxing requirements for creating new outside dining areas.

The county made these changes after consulting with an industry representative, said Teri Freitas Gorman, senior communications adviser in the Office of the Mayor.

She said in an email Tuesday afternoon that outdoor dining areas are not subject to the capacity limits set forth in emergency rules, but outdoor dining must adhere to CDC guidelines for at least a 6-foot separation between tables and chairs.

In Wailuku, the iconic Tasty Crust Restaurant is also dealing with the fluid changes.

President Curtis Takaoka said his location in Wailuku prevents him from expanding to outdoor dinning. But he said customers have been patient and have waited outside for a table to open up, as the restaurant can only allow a certain number of patrons to enter under the county guidelines.

Business has also changed with the pandemic. Takaoka no longer sees regulars at the restaurant, as some may fall into the more vulnerable category for COVID-19.

During the daytime, his restaurant was always busy, but with the pandemic, volume has been down about 40 percent during the same hours. Night volume, however, is only down 15 to 20 percent.

The business is able to pay for itself at night, but not during the day, he added.

As the pandemic and shutdowns have gone on for close to a year, Takaoka said the focus is extending not only to the well-being of his employees, but also to the overall financial health of the business, as costs are beginning to eat more and more into their savings.

With changes happening daily, it’s difficult to project how things will go and to make decisions.

But overall, Takaoka said he is thankful to his customers.

“We still have a fair amount of business,” he said.

For Ichiban Restaurant Maui in Kahului, things “have been very difficult,” said Jasmine Juan, daughter of owners Sibley and Zaida Juan.

She said they have made many adjustments to the restaurant at the Kahului Shopping Center. When capacity dropped to 50 percent, they took out seven tables from the dining room. Now with the new 30 percent capacity rule, they’ve removed five more tables.

“There is a lot of space,” Juan said as she surveyed the restaurant floor Tuesday.

When customers come in, workers reconfigure tables to allow for adequate space and social distancing, Juan said.

She added that people wait in their cars until their tables or their takeout orders are ready, and that customers have been patient.

Juan, who also works at Lineage restaurant in Wailea, said that every place has been hit hard by the pandemic.

However, she urged her parents to keep the faith and push on.

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

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