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Safe Access Oʻahu Program Puts Some Businesses in Uncomfortable Situations

FILE - In this undated photo, provided by NY Governor's Press Office on Saturday March 27, 2021, is the new "Excelsior Pass" app, a digital pass that people can download to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test. Vaccine passports being developed to verify COVID-19 immunization status and allow inoculated people to more freely travel, shop and dine have become the latest flash point in America’s perpetual political wars, with Republicans portraying them as a heavy-handed intrusion into personal freedom and private health choices. (NY Governor's Press Office via AP, File)
NY Governor's Press Office
In this undated photo, provided by NY Governor's Press Office on Saturday March 27, 2021, is the new "Excelsior Pass" app, a digital pass that people can download to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test. (NY Governor's Press Office via AP, File)

Nestled in the industrial warehouses of Kalihi, Broken Boundary Brewery opened its doors on a very auspicious day.

"Our soft opening was scheduled for March 20, 2020," said Christopher Cook, owner and head brewer of the brewery. "It is the day that Mayor Caldwell shut down bars and restaurants."

Cook says the brewery has been in the making for two and a half years. But due to permitting delays and additional facility upgrades, the brewery had no choice but to open during the pandemic.

Broken Boundary Brewery

In order to stay afloat, Cook had to invest more into the brewery in order to shift his operation from a brewpub to a take-out model. He invested in cans and two canning machines. But like a lot of businesses, take-out sales at the brewery didn't provide much revenue.

Cook says he was able to get some federal assistance with the paycheck protection program, and the city's grant. But he was unable to get the Small Business Administration's economic injury disaster loan because he opened during the pandemic.

Cook says those programs and an extended credit line from his bank helped him make it through 2020.

"Even now, we're on the razor's edge," he said. "We're pretty much family financed."

The year so far...

For a brief period, 2021 was looking up for Broken Boundary Brewery. Cook says he was finally able to break even in June and July. He began ramping up his operation in anticipation of increasing vaccination rates and more visitor arrivals.

But then the delta variant started spreading in the state, causing cases and hospitalizations to skyrocket. That led Gov. David Ige to urge visitors not to come to the islands in order to protect the state's health care systems.

Cook says visitors made up roughly half of his customers, which is reflected in his August revenues, which declined 45% from July.

"I'm not unsympathetic, I understand it's a pandemic and something needs to be done to regulate it," he said.

Cook says he follows the vaccination rates on Oʻahu, and compares that to Ige's plan to lift the state's Safe Travels regulations when 70% of residents are fully vaccinated.

"I'm not an expert, but I don't think it's a coincidence that the governor says 'it's not a good time to come to Hawaiʻi' and then the tourism numbers plummet. I know there's some seasonality there, even during normal years, but it turned down a lot," he said.

"Now I'm right back to where I was three or four months ago but now with significantly less cash," he added.

Broken Boundary Brewery
Broken Boundary Brewery

Safe Access Oʻahu comes into play

Shortly after, Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi announced the Safe Access Oʻahu program. It requires restaurants, bars and gyms to check for a customer's proof of vaccination, or a negative COVID test result within 48 hours.

Violators could face a fine of up to $5,000, a year in jail, or both.

Cook says he was relieved the announcement wasn't another lockdown. But he says the city's order adds another layer of regulatory pressure onto him.

"It seems like every three to four months the governor and the mayors have a new regulation that I'm forced to administer," Cook said.

As a business owner, Cook says the order has a lot of gray areas. For instance, businesses can accept proof of vaccination in a variety of ways, such as a government-issued vaccination card, a picture or photocopy, and the state's new QR code.

But it goes a step further.

Broken Boundary Brewery

"If they take an at-home test, then I have to get a receipt or some other documentation," said Cook. "As a person, saying 'Okay, I'm going to write up a policy, make this clear to my employees what we're expected to do.' It's getting harder and harder to do it because the policy isn't concise."

Cook also says there are issues with distinguishing the age of a person that is dining in. And he is afraid that he may get punished for not knowing whether a child is 11 or 12 years old — the eligible age of someone who could get vaccinated.

Cook says he's also uncomfortable asking customers to disclose their medical decisions. While Cook says he is vaccinated, he does believe people have the freedom to choose what they put in their bodies — as long as they are making an informed choice.

But he says he's forced to comply with the city's program, in order to look after his 13 employees.

"I'm down with doing my part to make sure COVID doesn't spread like wildfire, and keep hospital beds clear. But I'm put into a situation where I'm going to enforce a nebulous policy with very stiff consequences," he said.

"That makes me uncomfortable because I'm so close to the bone. I'm at the end of my resources," Cook told Hawaiʻi Public Radio. "I don't think I should be in charge of regulating a pandemic."

HPR's Casey Harlow also spoke with The Conversation about this story. Listen below.

HPR Reporter Casey Harlow - Sept. 20, 2021
The Conversation

Casey Harlow was an HPR reporter and occasionally filled in as local host of Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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