Restaurants Prepare For Dining On June 5 Under Conflicting Rules

May 26, 2020

Oahu restaurants can reopen on June 5 for dine-in services, although under state and city regulations and guidelines that sometimes conflict with each other, an issue that may prove challenging for the establishments and their customers.

The reopening of restaurants is part of Gov. David Ige's phased plan allowing certain businesses to resume operations but with health and safety requirements in place for containing the spread of COVID-19.

Bars and nightclubs will remain closed for now.

The city regulations issued Thursday were followed late Friday afternoon by the state Department of Health's rules. The guidelines issued by the city include the following:

• Customers must wear face coverings when entering and leaving the restaurant, although they can remove them when they sit down. The state's rules differ on this point, saying masks should be worn at all times and only be removed when a customer is "actively eating."

• Restaurant workers, such as servers, must wear face coverings. Cooks and kitchen staff who don't engage with the public aren't required to, although they are encouraged to do so.

• Groups dining together can be no larger than 10 people, whether or not they are all part of one household, the city says. The state's rules diverge on this subject, limiting tables to 6 people if they are not from the same household, while allowing up to 10 people at a table if they are.

• Seating must be arranged with 6 feet of separation between dining groups. The state goes further by recommending only half of the restaurant's seating capacity be used in addition to the six-foot separation between tables.

• Condiments must come in single-use packets, or if in reusable containers, these must be sanitized after each customer party.

• Tables and chairs need to be sanitized after each party or individual customer leaves.

• When non-disposable dishware and utensils are used, they must be sanitized after each use following state health department regulations and U.S. Food and Drug Administration best practices.

• Menus or menu boards must be disposable or sanitized after each use if they are reusable ones.

• The city requires hourly sanitization of touch-points, including workstations, equipment, screens, restrooms and other areas. The state, however, requires cleaning and disinfection of frequently contacted surfaces at least once per shift, "or more frequently if necessary."

• No self-service buffets or drink stations are allowed. On self-service salad bars and buffets, the state agrees these are not allowed at this time, but it does not mention drink stations.

Restaurants must also develop and post a COVID-19 mitigation plan following guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and, as much as practical, from the National Restaurant Association, the city says. The businesses must also abide by state and city regulations and rules for food service establishments.

As part of a pilot program, the city is also allowing ground floor restaurants next to city property, such as a park or playground, to use a portion of that land for sidewalk and outdoor dining. Certain restrictions apply. 

The state Department of Health rules include the following:

• Besides requiring 6 feet distance between tables, the department recommends that no more than 50% of the total seating capacity be available for use. Outdoor seating doesn't count toward the occupancy limit.

• Physical barriers can also be used between tables and booths for separation.

• Before their shifts, workers should be screened and evaluated for such signs of illness as cough, fever, shortness of breath and loss of taste or smell. Sick employees should not be allowed at work or, if already on the job, should be separated from co-workers and customers and sent home to self-isolate or seek medical attention.

• Employees should be trained in handwashing and use of sanitizers and to refrain from touching their faces.

• Establishments are encouraged to use a reservation system for dine-in service to control the number of customers. Both the city and the health department want restaurants to consider having customers pre-order when they make their reservations, cutting down on the time they spend in an establishment.

• Customers waiting to get in to a restaurant to dine should be separated by six feet with floor markings and signage.

• Customers should wear a cloth face mask or other types of masks "at all times which should only be removed while actively eating." 

It's not clear from the health department rules if customers must put on their masks between bites or while drinking. The health department did not immediately respond to a request for clarification late Friday.

The difference between allowable numbers on a table between the city and state may also confuse customers.

Despite the layered requirements, many restaurant owners and managers are eager to open. Others are holding back, taking time to understand the city's requirements.

"We’ve read through it, and definitely appreciate the effort that it took to discuss and share with the restaurant community," Christina Maffie, general manager of StripSteak Waikiki. "And we feel it’s fair and for the safest guest experience. So we’re talking through it right now, and we’re just trying to figure out what we need to do so that it’s the safest guest experience and still a wonderfully personalized, enjoyable experience for our guests."

Maffie says she is unsure when her restaurant will reopen to customers. But when it does, she’ll be eager to welcome them back.