Coronavirus cases in Hawaii have been steadily climbing, particularly among those who haven’t gotten the COVID-19 shot.
However, a recent survey shows that a majority of Hawaii businesses are not planning to mandate vaccinations for employees.
More than half, or 57%, of the 266 businesses that responded do not plan to mandate COVID-19 shots. About 68% of survey respondents were businesses operating with fewer than 100 employees, with many under 10 employees, according to the survey conducted last week by the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii.
The question of workplace shot mandates has been top of mind in Hawaii and elsewhere in the nation because of the rapid spread of the delta variant, which is causing more Americans to fall ill with COVID-19. The recent COVID- 19 surge is threatening economic recovery and a return to normalcy.
Chamber of Commerce Hawaii President and CEO Sherry Menor-McNamara said businesses gave several reasons for hesitating to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine. A few concerns include not knowing how to implement a proper mandate, taking a wait-and-see approach, possibly losing good workers and being exposed to legal issues, she said.
Menor-McNamara said the chamber conducted the survey and held a well-attended webinar Wednesday to discuss the issues surrounding vaccine mandates. She said the chamber has not taken a position on workplace vaccine mandates, but has focused on finding ways to increase Hawaii’s vaccination rate.
“I think mandates will gain more traction as more businesses do it,” she said.
Jared Higashi, Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association vice president of government and community affairs, said his employer strongly encouraged the shot. However, he was quick to sign up, and got his first shot in March and his second in April.
“As soon as it was open for the hospitality and visitor industry, I jumped right on it,” Higashi said. “I wanted to protect my family and friends and to do the right thing on behalf of my community. Vaccination is key to reopening our economy and allowing people to resume their lives and go back to work.”
HLTA President and CEO Mufi Hannemann said the organization has been encouraging visitor industry workers and their families to get vaccinated, and campaigned to make the shots available to them quickly.
“Anecdotally, I’m hearing that 80% to 90% of the workforce for our members is vaccinated,” Hannemann said. “Efforts have been exhausted to get people vaccinated within the law. It’s that last 10% or so that need to be convinced.”
Bryant de Venecia, Unite Here Local 5 spokesman, said the union does not support mandatory vaccines in the workplace.
“However, we pushed for vaccination with our national ‘Our Shot’ campaign. We did informational town halls with the (state Department of Health) and health care providers who can provide translations to help our members make their decision,” de Venecia said. “Right now we are working on testimonies from our Native Hawaiian members to help drive vaccination in the community.”
Hannemann said some employers are concerned about the liability of a mandate, as their employees might have “strong reasons not to do it, and it’s hard to force them.”
“It’s probably going to take a government mandate to do that,” he said.
Lt. Gov. Josh Green said Friday that Hawaii might consider requiring proof of vaccination for restaurants, bars and gyms.
President Joe Biden’s administration has not universally mandated vaccines, but recent decisions have put them squarely in the center of a fierce political debate surrounding the government’s ability to compel Americans to follow public health guidelines.
State lawmakers across the U.S. have introduced more than 100 bills aiming to prohibit employers from requiring vaccination as a condition of employment, according to the National Academy for State Health Policy. The nonpartisan forum said mandates are banned in Florida, Massachusetts, North Dakota, Montana and Arizona.
Biden announced Wednesday that his administration will require that nursing home staff be vaccinated against COVID-19 as a condition for those facilities to continue receiving federal Medicare and Medicaid funding.
Biden in late July announced sweeping new pandemic requirements aimed at boosting vaccination rates for millions of federal workers and contractors as he lamented the “American tragedy” of rising yet preventable deaths among the unvaccinated.
Federal workers will be required to sign forms attesting they’ve been vaccinated against the coronavirus or else comply with new rules on mandatory masking, weekly testing, distancing and more. The strict new guidelines are aimed at increasing sluggish vaccination rates among the huge number of Americans who draw federal paychecks — and to set an example for private employers around the country.
Biden also directed the Defense Department to look into adding the COVID-19 shot to its list of required vaccinations for members of the military.
Some companies in Hawaii are reluctant to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations before they gain full approval from the Food and Drug Administration, which could happen as early as Monday for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, according to various news reports.
Other companies, though, already are taking the leap. As of Nov. 1, Hawaiian Airlines will require all of its U.S.-based employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, said Hawaiian Airlines spokesman Alex Da Silva.
“We will develop a program for our international teammates in alignment with vaccine access in their countries. There is no greater demonstration of our values than ensuring the safety of others,” Da Silva said. “Safety is the foundation of air travel, and it is ingrained throughout our operation and service. This is no different. By getting vaccinated, we protect ourselves and those around us. That is malama.”
Da Silva said employees will be able to apply for medical and religious exemptions, and if eligible, they will have to be tested regularly.
“We are finalizing details of the testing,” he said.
Chef and owner Peter Merriman of Merriman’s Hawaii announced Monday that all Merriman’s Hawaii staff must be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Merriman said employees are required to receive the first dose of the Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccine or the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine by Sept. 10. Those receiving Pfizer or Moderna shots must receive the second shot by Oct. 8.
Those with approved medical or religious exemptions will be required to submit a weekly negative COVID-19 test.
Merriman said similar employee vaccination requirements are pending for Handcrafted Restaurants, which include the Monkeypod by Merriman restaurants on Oahu and Maui, The Beach House on Kauai and Moku Kitchen in SALT at Our Kakaako.
A vaccination mandate for indoor-dining customers also is pending at Merriman’s Hawaii and Handcrafted Restaurants locations, he said.
“It’s part of our civic responsibility to help be part of the solution,” Merriman said.