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Restaurants Escape Further Restrictions -- For Now

noe tanigawa
Restaurants and bars are about a lot more than just eating and drinking.

The newest tightening of COVID-19 precautions around the state did not include greater restrictions on restaurant operations. While that surprised some, even without further restrictions, Hawai'i restaurants have been hard hit, and are bracing for more.

Credit Noe Tanigawa
Expect to wear a mask when walking in a restaurant, removing the mask at table is allowed. You may be asked to fill out a form to aid in contact tracing, should that be necessary.

"If you're a business owner, every day, you're not sure if you're going to be in business at the end of the week," says Greg Maples, manager of Pounders restaurant at the Polynesian Cultural Center. He also chairs the Hawai'i Restaurant Association.


"Number one, can I pay my bills? Number two, is the government going to react to something and shut me down? That's a tough environment to live in."


Maples says in Hawaii, over 100,000 workers rely on the restaurant industry, and more than half of them may never return to work.

Maples makes two requests for the industry:


"First, take a laser approach when it comes to dealing with COVID and not a shotgun approach. If the government makes the decision to close an industry, they in turn need and have the responsibility to somehow fund that industry to help those people. "   


Maples cites Honolulu bars as an example. He says fewer than a third of closed restaurants opened when dine in was reinstated. And those that did, he says, are making 30%-35% of their usual take.


"And believe me, safety is first," says chef/restauranteur Roy Yamaguchi. He says restaurants open now continue to invest hundreds and thousands of dollars in protective equipment and supplies to deal with the COVID threat.


"We need solutions, and that's what we do as a living. I mean we had a pretty viable takeout business." Yamaguchi says. Pivoting to takeout worked reasonably well, then switching over to limited dine in has been workable.


"Our most important thing we did was take care of our  employees and customers make sure they feel safe and secure," he said.


"At the end of the day, when there is a vaccine ready for everyone, that's going to solve the problem. Unless every individual feels safe about going out, things aren't going to change.”


Chef Alan Wong says assume that almost every restaurant is losing money every day, and anything like another shutdown will hurt even more.


"Cash flow is king," says Wong."You got cash to weather this storm, you'll be okay -- cash or somebody with deep pockets. Because at some point these small mom and pop restaurants  are going to run out of money and you'll see a lot more closing."


Wong sees that development as part of a larger picture.


"It also coincides with the unemployment running out, the $600 dollars.  It also coincides with rent coming up and mortgages coming up. That perfect storm is about to happen."    .


Asked what that storm means for dining out?


"I think the big winners will be the big box people and the people that have chain restaurants and a lot of money behind them."     


Meanwhile, Wong is offering family-style meals as well as select produce and Peterson eggs at his King Street location.

Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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