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Where’s the aloha for Hawaii bar owners?

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No local businesses have had an easy time navigating Hawaii’s state and county lockdowns. But Hawaii’s bars might be among those that have suffered the most under the confusing COVID-19 tier system.

Even now, many local bars and restaurants are struggling to handle the demands of Tier 5, which requires them to get proof of vaccination from their customers if they want to dispense with social distancing. According to Hawaii News Now, some Oahu restaurants experienced backlash for trying to enforce the rule, and the Hawaii Restaurant Association can no longer name a single venue that is still participating in the program.

According to Bill Comerford, president of the Hawaii Bar Owners Association, local bars have been willing to do almost anything in order to stay open and make some money. Comerford joined guest host Joe Kent, executive vice president of the Grassroot Institute, on this week’s episode of “Hawaii Together” on ThinkTech Hawaii. He said Hawaii’s bars have been treated unfairly throughout the lockdown.

“Bars are in Tier 13,” Comerford said, only partly joking. “We’re the first to be closed, the last to be opened.”

Before the lockdown began, Comerford was the owner of four popular Irish-themed bars on Oahu. Now, two of those bars have closed their doors, while the other two are under new ownership. After being told that they would be closed for only a few weeks, Comerford and other local bar owners spent months without any income, hoping for government aid that ended up being enough to clear only a few debts.

“We have people who have been in the business 20 or 30 years … forced to … take their retirement funds and try and preserve their business,” said Comerford. “That’s crazy. If it fails or it closes, now you don’t have any money for retirement. That’s the position I’ve been in.”

For Oahu’s bar owners, the lockdowns were characterized by seemingly arbitrary rules that frustrated every attempt to generate income. Comerford says restrictions like the mayor’s prohibition on “nightclubs,” or distinctions made based on percentage of food sales, appeared to be based on real regulations, but were actually more akin to picking and choosing certain elements of the liquor laws to emphasize.

“Mayor Caldwell made up his rules as he went along,” Comerford said. “He was going based on what people were saying on the mainland as opposed to what was happening here. And he never had a conversation with anybody in the industry to properly discuss it.”

Comerford said some of the regulations exhibited the “9-to-5” bias of the decision makers behind the orders. While those people couldn’t fathom why someone would need to be out late, Comerford argued that there are many people — like police, health workers and hotel and restaurant personnel — who work late shifts and want to get a drink after work.

Rules like the alcohol curfew, which was 10 p.m. until March 2021 and now goes to only midnight, not only reflected the 9-to-5 view, but deprived bars of their most profitable business hours.

Comerford said there is no reason to treat bars differently from restaurants,

“If restaurants are operating safely, bars can too,” he said.

The former bar owner is pessimistic about the industry’s chance of recovery. Moreover, he is frustrated that its concerns have not been acknowledged by the governor.

“Quite honestly, Mayor [Kirk] Caldwell and [Gov. David] Ige never gave us a chance to survive,” he said.

Though it may be too late for many of our favorite local bars and restaurants, Comerford’s concerns about the tier system and the way his industry was treated demonstrate the need to reform the state emergency management law.

The good news is that the lack of a legislative check on the actions and the governor and county mayors — along with the fact that the public has had no voice in the way things are being handled — are problems that can be corrected.
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This commentary was Keli’i Akina’s weekly “President’s Corner” column for July 23 ,2021. If you would like to have his columns emailed to you on a regular basis, please call 808-864-1776 or email info@grassrootinstitute.org.

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