Few industries have suffered more during the COVID-19 crisis than Hawaii’s restaurants. They’ve been subject to government restrictions — including forced closures, take-out only orders, limited seating, and the like – which have made staying open a challenge in the past year.

But now business leaders and policymakers are working to put together a program that offers more certainty to restaurateurs. How close the program is to being adopted is not clear; however, it has at least made it to the desk of Attorney General Clare Connors, whose office is analyzing it for legal pitfalls.

Under the program, restaurants would not be subject to the so-called tier systems that create ever-shifting restrictions for businesses if they agree to adopt operating guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and subject themselves to Hawaii Department of Health inspections.

“We’ve been at this since October, trying to remove the good actors from the ups and downs of the tier system,” said Sen. Glenn Wakai, chair of the Senate’s Committee on Economic Development, Tourism, and Technology. The result is restaurants could stay open at their current capacity even if COVID-19 cases were to climb and Honolulu, say, were to impose new restrictions.

Wakai credited Rep. Sylvia Luke, chair of the House Finance Committee, with moving the program forward by finding money in health department coffers that can be used to hire additional inspectors needed to make sure participating restaurants are complying. Luke didn’t return calls for comment.

Sherry Menor-McNamara, president and chief executive of the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii, said the initiative, known as the Mana program, would enable struggling businesses to avoid the risk of new restrictions that could hurt them while they are barely treading water.

As difficult as COVID-19 restrictions have been in general, she said, the changes in direction have been especially hard — particularly for restaurants, which in the past have had to throw out perishable food when slapped with new restrictions that caused a decline in capacity.

With cases rising in Hawaii, the specter of new restrictions looms.

“To reverse course would definitely have a detrimental impact on our businesses,” she said. “Some are barely swimming, and some are drowning for that matter.”

Program Could Expand Beyond Restaurants

Menor-McNamara credited Honolulu restaurateur Robert Yamazaki, owner of Yakitori Hachibei on Hotel Street, with getting the program going. Menor-McNamara and Wakai describe Yamazaki as a classic citizen-activist, pushing forward a program from the grass roots.

In an interview, Yamazaki said that restaurants like his were hurt by an initial shut-down order in March 2020. But he said the major blow came in the summer, after restrictions had eased and a new surge in cases led to renewed business restrictions. He said he started working on the plan because it seemed more practical than simply protesting.

For Yamazaki, the goal was to keep restaurant staff and patrons safe. To that end, he set up numerous procedures, including temperature checks for employees before and after shifts.

Yamazaki’s efforts began to get traction, he said, when he connected with Menor-McNamara. He began collaborating with others as part of the chamber’s Small Business Action Committee, which includes others subject to tier system restrictions, like florists, wedding planners and salon operators.

“It was refreshing getting small businesses together who had a common goal,” he said.

That led to audiences with state officials such as Luke and Wakai, as well as Gov. David Ige.

Ige’s office did not respond to requests for comment. However, Krishna Jayaram, a spokesman for Hawaii Attorney General Clare Connors, confirmed the office is involved, “vetting to make sure, like any program, that there are no legal concerns.”

While limited to restaurants, Wakai said the program could be expanded to include other industries overseen by the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs’ Professional & Vocational Licensing Division. Those include occupations like athletic trainers, barbers and massage therapists.

Wakai stressed that the Mana program is voluntary. Businesses that participate simply avoid restrictions under the tier systems, which impose more or less restrictions on businesses depending on metrics like the numbers of new COVID-19 cases.

Greg Maples, chairman of the Hawaii Restaurant Association, said he’s hopeful that state and local government officials will not impose additional restrictions and that the Mana program will be something restaurants have “in their back pocket,” just in case locales go back to previous restrictions.

“I don’t anticipate we’ll go back,” he said. “But who anticipated the pandemic a year ago?”