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Businesses pivot outside on vaccine rule rollout

Mixed reactions from patrons of restaurants, bars and gyms amid ‘Safer Outside’ launch

Pita Paradise hostess Kea Manuel checks the phone of Kim Salama of Omaha, Neb. to confirm she has been vaccinated Wednesday afternoon at the Wailea Gateway Center. “I ask them if they want to sit indoors or outdoors and if they say indoors then I ask them to see their vaccine card,” Manuel said. Salama was dining with husband Nabil Salama. Maui County’s “Safer Outside” initiative began on Wednesday and requires full vaccination for patrons in order to eat and remain indoors at restaurants, bars and gyms. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

WAILUKU — A handful of small businesses made key infrastructure pivots while customers expressed divided reactions over new county rules on the first day of vaccine mandates that extend to indoor restaurants, bars and gyms.

As of Wednesday, proof of full vaccination is required to access indoor seating and other features for certain businesses under a countywide program called “Safer Outside.” Oahu’s version, “Safe Access Oahu,” launched Monday.

For Maui, a handful of small businesses in West, Central and South Maui made fast pivots, shuttering their indoor seating and moving to outdoor-only dining.

Longtime mom-and-pop restaurant Sam Sato’s closed down indoor dining and set up new covered tables outdoors. Maui Brewing Co. in Kihei transitioned to all-outdoor seating Wednesday. Fork & Salad in Kahului also shut down indoor seating and added tables and chairs outside. Moku Roots in Lahaina closed indoor seating and only allowed outdoor seating.

Stillwell’s Bakery & Cafe, which had removed indoor dining and established outdoor dining only early on in the pandemic, is in the process of adding tables and constructing a canopy and bench with custom-made cushions to enhance outdoor seating.

Kihei residents Taka Harada (right) and Ellen Caringer talk about the vaccine mandate after having lunch at Koho’s Wednesday afternoon at Queen Kaahumanu Center in Kahului.

“We try not to take sides on things; I guess we’re taking a bit of a neutral side as well as saying we don’t want it to impact our business and really the point behind it, alienate any particular person,” Matt Portilla, Stillwell’s managing partner said Wednesday.

“We’re trying to find that balance between making sure our community is safe but also taken care of and fed and experiencing the wonderful pastries and food we have to offer for their families and stuff. It’s hard; there’s not a lot of places; they’re shutting down left and right.”

When it came to patrons Wednesday — reactions spanned the spectrum. Some called “aloha” allowing access for all without discrimination and some said “aloha” is being vaccinated as a way to care about the larger community.

Planet Fitness member Skye Kahoali’i of Wailuku supports the new mandates at the gym. Being vaccinated means that people have taken measures to protect themselves and others, especially for those who are medically vulnerable, Kahoali’i said.

“I have medical issues that make me vulnerable,” Kahoali’i said. “It’s just taking care of each other. If you don’t want to be part of the community and take care of each other, then go live someplace else.”

Kauaula Valley resident Daniel Palakiko, who lives off the grid on kuleana land, said he is “appreciative” of the vaccine rules.

“We are an isolated close-knit ohana, because of that, we take this whole pandemic real seriously,” said Palakiko, who was signing up for Planet Fitness membership. “When we isolate we can truly isolate. Whenever we are out and about in the community, I appreciate any type of program that they have that ensures that when we come back to the valley, we come back COVID free and safe into our bubble again.”

Noe Figueroa, a Kahului resident, said she was worried about being “judged a little” when she and her family arrived at Sam Sato’s in Wailuku on Wednesday.

“I was thinking as I walked up, ‘Oh, I wonder how people are viewing them sitting outside like all those other unvaccinated,’ “ she said. “We don’t want to get looked at wrong, you know.”

Instead, she and her family praised the sense of community at Sam Sato’s and said they didn’t feel excluded from the dining experience, especially when there is so little to do on Maui.

“Even though you’re outside you still get that feeling of being a part of the restaurant,” said Kevin Quintero.

Even within the same establishment, opinions differed in Kahului.

Kihei residents Taka Harada and Ellen Caringer, who were at Koho’s Grill & Bar in Kahului on Wednesday, said they support the vaccination mandates and feel safer when venturing to establishments, which they have been reluctant to do.

“I have heart and kidney problems, so I’m more comfortable now,” Harada said.

Kahului resident Darren Yamamoto, who was also at Koho’s, said he doesn’t feel any safer this Wednesday than he did the week before when he came to the restaurant, which is now checking vaccine cards.

“Do I feel safer? No. I just take my precautions, wear my mask, keep my distance, minimize my exposure,” he said. “I think it’s more virtue signaling. I think it makes people feel good. Why can’t we all just make our own decisions?”

He added that he’s concerned for small businesses, which he said will suffer more than the larger businesses amid the rules. He also wondered why there isn’t a card or a pass for those with antibodies who have overcome the virus.

Koho’s general manager Nohealani Johnson said staff anticipates slower traffic amid the rollout and in the weeks that follow. However, more customers than they expected turned out Wednesday, she said.

Overall, Johnson said only time will tell how the mandate will impact business. “I’m not too sure yet; we’re just trying to feel it out today and see how it goes. We’re trying to get through everything as smooth as we can,” Johnson said.

For Maui’s rules, there is no provision for patrons to receive service indoors with negative COVID-19 test results. Also, full- and part-time employees must show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test taken within seven days.

Although rules apply to “other high-risk businesses,” the county emergency proclamation does not include what those other businesses may be. The rules will remain in place for at least 30 days and then will be re-evaluated.

Denmark, Greece, France, Italy, some Canadian provinces and the U.S. cities of New Orleans, New York and San Francisco are among the locations that have vaccination requirements to get into places like indoor restaurants or theaters.

Enforcement varies and many places also accept a recent negative test for the virus, a partial vaccination or proof that you previously recovered from the disease.

Many U.S. states have banned vaccination passports or cards. Protesters in France and elsewhere have criticized vaccine mandates as invasive and restricting freedom of movement. Privacy advocates have raised concerns about getting people in the habit of having their phones scanned wherever they go, and generally favor options that won’t be tracked, such as a paper record or a digital copy in your phone that can be shown at the door.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.

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