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Hawaiʻi Restaurant Association has concerns about COVID messaging from local officials

FILE - A restaurant in Northbrook, Ill., Sunday, March 21, 2021. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Nam Y. Huh/AP
FILE - A restaurant in Northbrook, Ill., Sunday, March 21, 2021. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

With Hawaiʻi experiencing another COVID-19 surge, state health officials and local leaders are urging caution.

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi said he would think about reinstating a mask mandate if hospitals approach capacity.

State Health Director Dr. Libby Char encouraged people to wear masks in crowded places, avoid large gatherings, and consider choosing takeout over indoor dining.

"It's out there, it's in the community, don't panic, we know what to do. But when you're going through your day-to-day activities, think about it and make some thoughtful decisions," Char told HPR. "People are so tired. They want to get back to things that they used to do and not have to worry about COVID anymore, but alright guys, it's still here. It's not quite done yet."

Greg Maples, chairman of the Hawaiʻi Restaurant Association and vice president of food services at the Polynesian Cultural Center, says a return to restaurant restrictions would be devastating for the industry.

He says people listen to COVID messaging from local officials, "so they have to be careful what they say."

"I do have some real concern with the messaging of what Mayor Blangiardi said about masks, what Dr. Char said about takeout — because I do think that there are people listening on the mainland and we have to remember that from a restaurant point of view, we just got through the toughest two years in the history of restaurants," Maples told The Conversation.

"When people on the mainland, which is primarily where the tourists are coming from, when they hear this kind of rhetoric, what happens is they go — you know what, let's just go to Florida and not worry about it. We're not going to go back to masks, especially if you can be on a plane and not have a mask but come to Hawaiʻi and have to wear a mask," Maples said.

Maples said restaurants are also contending with inflation, supply chain issues, and staffing challenges.

"We're just ready to go into our summer months and this is the time we've been waiting for — no restrictions, no mandates, tourists are coming back. We need to make money for the next three months so that we can try to right the ship. But to come out now and to start talking about that, just days before the vacation holiday season starts — to me is really troublesome," Maples said.

"I get it, we've seen a surge, but I just go back to this every time: the people of Hawaiʻi are veterans. They understand how to navigate through a pandemic. Now, do we have people that are sometimes reckless? Yes. Do we have people that shouldn't have certain parties? Maybe. But the bottom line is when there's something that makes me uncomfortable, I put a mask on, or I just bow out of it and just say I'm not going to go," he added.

The state Department of Health has not made any new recommendations regarding masks. The state-enforced indoor mask mandate ended in March.

Hawaiʻi COVID-19 Summary Metrics on Wednesday, May 18, 2022.
Hawaiʻi Department Of Health
Hawaiʻi COVID-19 Summary Metrics on Wednesday, May 18, 2022.

This interview aired on The Conversation on May 19, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at ccruz@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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