Small isle eateries cite big losses due to new mandates
Resident-based restaurants looking for financial relief to avoid cutbacks, closure
PAIA — Citing significant losses linked to vaccination mandates swiftly enacted by Maui County, some locally owned and operated restaurants on Maui are pressing county and state leaders for relief funding to avoid greater cutbacks and even closure.
Some restaurants — especially ones in East and Central Maui that rely on residents over tourists — are recording 25 percent to over 50 percent reductions in sales since the mandates started.
Restaurateurs acknowledge the season is typically slower, but with statewide capacity limits for eateries cut to 50 percent, some don’t know how they can continue.
“It was a sad lunch,” Flatbread Co. acting General Manager Heide Hancock said Friday afternoon in Paia. “These mandates are kind of freaking the staff out. They’re wondering if they are going to have their job. Especially in the front of the house if we have to go to takeout only. It’s really hard to see them so anxious. We have a great team here. It really is like family.”
Kaili Scheer, Maui native and Marlow owner, reported a more than 50 percent drop in sales Wednesday and a 25 percent drop Thursday at her Pukalani restaurant. If things don’t turn around this weekend, the new eatery will have to revise operations to weather the remainder of the mandate.
“Wednesday was terrifying to be honest,” she said.
After seeing at least a 50 percent drop in sales Wednesday and Thursday, Wailuku’s Umi Sushi owner-chef Jayse Sato, who noted that he and his five staffers are vaccinated, sent a plea for patronage via social media Friday. It isn’t easy to pivot to takeout for some restaurants, he said, since many locals enjoy the dining experience.
“Our thought after two days of these mandates is that we find it really hard to operate under these conditions,” he said. “We need both parties to come together if not small business like us will never make it.”
Colleen’s at the Cannery in Haiku, which employs 45 people and has been in business for 25 years, saw a more than 50 percent drop in sales since the rollout. Other states studying how the Hawaii vaccine passport program is going should be “extremely wary,” owner Colleen Nicholas said Friday.
“The business climate has gone from serious to exactly that — dire,” she said. “I speak with other small business owners often and we all are not sure how much longer we can withstand the severe restrictions placed on our operations.”
Kula Bistro and Flatbread also reported traffic reductions since the rollout. In addition, they are being hit with staff shortages and scheduling challenges as employees try to navigate the new rules. Flatbread had to close its dinner shift Wednesday, and Kula Bistro let workers go early Thursday.
Bars, restaurants and gyms were mandated starting Wednesday to check vaccination status for patrons seeking indoor operations, and staff are required to prove vaccination or submit a weekly negative COVID-19 test. Called “Safer Outside,” the rules will be re-evaluated after 30 days.
The mandates follow Oahu’s “Safe Access” program, which were implemented Monday. Oahu businesses had weeks after receiving official rules to implement them. Maui County had less than a week to prepare: Official rules were posted online Sept. 9 and they began Sept. 15.
“We are here to support all efforts to bring case numbers down on our island,” Scheer said. “However, the mandates seemed to be rolled out in a rushed effort, without the proper support for businesses, like dedicated testing sites for employees and campaigns to educate the public on the mandate specifics.”
Along with the threat of fines and shutdown for emergency rule violations, restaurants face unique risks for non-compliance due heavy regulations levied by the state Department of Health and the county Department of Liquor Control.
“It would be great if everyone could be like, ‘We’re not going to do this,’ — but it’s just too hard,” Lindsay Kalaway, Kula Bistro takeout cashier, said Thursday. “People are just trying to make money at this point. Nobody can afford to not work. Especially since they’re not offering anyone unemployment because of this.”
Early on in the pandemic, restaurant owners had PPP loans that could help offset economic downturns suffered from COVID-19 restrictions, Nicholas said.
“Now we don’t have any of those safety nets or assurances,” she said.
Scheer said some restaurants are seeking replenishment of the Restaurant Revitalization Fund.
“We should all be calling our senators to ask for this,” she said.
The program, designed to provide emergency assistance for eligible restaurants, bars and other qualifying businesses impacted by COVID-19, dried up quickly after it was launched earlier this year.
Nicholas added that the COVID-19 situation on Maui will not be solved by putting it on the backs of restaurants and other small businesses. Her restaurant has been constantly retrofitting dining rooms and altering operations, but rules continue to change.
Sato said the sector is unfairly targeted.
“We’ve gotten the s – – – end of the stick during this whole pandemic,” Sato said. “If you’re going to apply this mandate for restaurants, bars and gyms, apply it to everyone.”
“Us as small businesses cannot survive.”
The U.S. Small Business Administration reports that 99.3 percent of Hawaii businesses are small businesses, defined as those with 500 or fewer employees. Nearly 98 percent of the state’s small businesses have fewer than 20 employees; about 82 percent have no employees at all.
When asked by The Maui News whether the administration anticipated the revenue losses tied to the mandates and what resources are available for restaurants, county Managing Director Sandy Baz pointed to the county’s Office of Economic Development.
“Maui County Office of Economic Development has resources available,” Baz said during the Friday afternoon county news conference. “We have resources on our Maui Nui Strong dot info page as well; you can call the Maui County Office of Economic Development and they can assist you directly with different federal resources and they can link you up with different areas to get assistance should you need it if you’re affected by COVID in general or this specific rule.”
Staff writer Matthew Thayer contributed to this report.
* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at email@example.com.