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State Food Safety Branch Manager Talks Reality of Pandemic Rules at Restaurants

A business in San Antonio posts a reminder about face masks. The city is one of a growing number of localities and states mandating that face coverings be worn in public.
NPR

If you're confused about face mask rules, social distancing restrictions and other guidance about the coronavirus, you're not alone. There are guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, emergency orders from the governor, and varying rules in each of Hawaiʻi's counties.

Oʻahu restaurants and bars have the option to do away with social distancing if customers provide proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test, but many restaurant operators aren’t doing so because they said they aren’t comfortable with the added responsibility.

Peter Oshiro manages the food safety branch for the state Department of Health, though he stressed he is not involved in Honolulu's, or any county's, tiered reopening plan.

“The public is confused because they’re the ones calling us. They’re complaining," he said. "Bureaucracy keeps making rules which they have no intention or ability to enforce. That's my big issue."

Below are excerpts from Oshiro's interview with The Conversation's Catherine Cruz, edited for length and clarity.

On enforcing pandemic-related rules at this time

OSHIRO: The reality of it is, at this point in time, the Department of Health is not enforcing the mask mandates or the social distancing at our regulated establishments. The main reason why it's a legal problem right now is that once the food establishment tells us their employees are all vaccinated, and they're checking their customers are all vaccinated, then there's absolutely no scientific reason to be wearing a mask or to socially distance.

So if we close the restaurant down and issue them a red card for not wearing a mask, for following Centers of Disease Control and Prevention guidance, it's not gonna fly. Once the CDC came out with the science that says if you are fully vaccinated, you do not need to wear masks under any condition, then at that point in time, we lost our ability to actually legally enforce it. We don't have any means to say even what is a legal vaccination card. At this point in time in the pandemic, people need to protect themselves. I think government has done more than enough, which means that if you want to get vaccinated, you can get vaccinated.

And if you're not vaccinated, everybody should realize that 99% of our hospitalizations and deaths currently are unvaccinated people. So you really need to protect yourselves. I don't know how much more the health department can keep saying that. So if you're worried about going into a nightclub where nobody's wearing a mask, and you're waiting for government to help you out, I don't think we're at that point anymore. You're gonna have to make your own decision and protect yourself. You're vaccinated, go ahead and go in there and rock yourself out. And if you're not, please don't go in.

"Bureaucracy keeps making rules which they have no intention or ability to enforce. That's my big issue."
Peter Oshiro, Food Safety Branch, State of Hawaiʻi Department of Health

On the public's confusion over which pandemic rules are in place

OSHIRO: The public is confused because they're the ones calling us, they're complaining. When the mayor makes the rules, that doesn't bind the Department of Health to do anything. The Department of Health is bound by the governor. So the governor needs to pass some kind of proclamation or emergency response. Anything short of that, the only people that will enforce anything are the Honolulu Police Department. They're the only ones that have the legal power to enforce any of the mayor's "tier system restrictions."

On when he thought his job became difficult during the pandemic

OSHIRO: Actually it got difficult because the administration, for all they say about following the science, they really don't. And they don't have a vision of how they're gonna integrate it. So to this day, we're still asking restaurants, as far as the mandate goes, that they all have to be masked up, as far as the state goes. And then the city changes that and says that, no, you just have to ask if people are vaccinated.

So again, you have two bosses out there, two sets of laws — very difficult to figure out which one is going to be enforced and not. So the food safety branch, it's okay. Now my manpower is strictly focused on our original goal which is foodborne illness transmission prevention. The main thing about the inspectors, they were worried about their own health. So my goal as the manager was to make sure that they had adequate personal protective devices. So from the start of the pandemic, we were issuing KN95 masks to them, shields, sanitizers, everything. And it's so sad because we had to do that on our own, the state provided nothing, we purchased all this equipment outside of the department because the department would not purchase some of these equipment for us.

This segment aired on The Conversation on July 20, 2021.

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