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Maui Restaurant Says Vaccination Requirement Puts Small Businesses Into a Highly Polarized Debate

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Noe Tanigawa
/
Hawai'i Public Radio

Moku Roots in Lahaina is one of several businesses that took to social media to announce they are changing their operation in order to stay open and comply with the county's proof of vaccination order. But they also voiced their opposition to the county's order.

"Are we supposed to hire a bouncer like at the door to check people's vaccine passports?" said Alexa Caskey, co-owner of Moku Roots. "It's just a piece of paper, how am I supposed to know if it's fake or if it's real? And then also, the penalties are really substantial."

Maui County's "Safer Outside" program went into effect on Sept. 15. Like Oʻahu's Safe Access program, restaurants, bars and gyms are required to see proof of vaccination for customers dining inside or using the facilities.

But unlike Honolulu, Maui's program doesn't have a provision for a negative COVID test result. Instead, those who are unvaccinated can either get take-out or dine outside.

In order to comply with the county's rules, Moku Roots is not allowing any customers to dine indoors.

"It didn't feel right to me to segregate different people based on their medical history," Caskey said. "And we were really lucky that we have so much outdoor seating, because we just took the stance that we're not going to deal with this."

Caskey says she believes Maui's proof of vaccination program is a result of policymakers being too quick in giving an exemption to vaccinated travelers — which she thinks could have led to an increase in COVID cases and hospitalizations.

She notes that pre-testing seemed to have kept a large portion of residents and visitors safe, while also allowing tourism to return.

But ultimately, she says it seems that small businesses are being tasked to fix the missteps of government leaders.

"I think the Safer Outside policy is just kind of a distraction from really what should be done to actually keep everybody safe," she said. "I don't think it's going to be an effective policy. I think it's unnecessarily burdensome on businesses. I'm all for keeping everyone safe, that's why I've been pretty vocal about why I think we should have just re-implemented the pre-testing policy for everybody."

But her restaurant's policy has garnered the attention of the broader community. She says she's mostly gotten positive feedback from people, but it has also gotten negative attention.

"Because of the stance that we have taken, it does not in any way mean that we are anti-vax," she said.

"I'm vaccinated, most of the people that work here are vaccinated. The negative responses were just, like, 'Stop pushing your anti-vax agenda!' I'm not anti-vax. That's at all what I'm saying. What I'm saying is I don't think this is the solution," she told Hawaiʻi Public Radio.

Caskey also believes that the county's policy thrusts small local businesses into a highly polarized debate.

"It's just putting businesses in a really impossible situation, because it's so polarizing," she said. "People are no longer 'Hey, I believe in this and you believe in that, that's cool let's still be friends.' For the last couple years it's been 'Oh, you believe in this, well f*** you, you're not my friend anymore."

Going forward, Caskey says Moku Roots will continue to follow county guidelines, but will adjust in order to be more inclusive of all customers.

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