At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, LGBTQ+-friendly downtown bar Scarlet Honolulu became a symbol of what many in the bar and restaurant industry have called an overzealous enforcement of pandemic restrictions. .
After Honolulu Liquor Commission inspectors forced their way into the bar and assaulted one of its owners, Scarlet filed a federal lawsuit claiming the commission violated the club’s civil rights. And for every Scarlet – which has been one of the few establishments to speak out publicly against the commission and take legal action – there are others who have complained privately about what they describe as intimidation by bureaucrats with badges.
“Lots of allegations — I hear them over and over from different establishments,” says Honolulu City Council member Esther Kiaaina. “People won’t want to talk to you publicly because they’re scared.”
Bar owners and operators who spoke to Civil Beat for this story say they fear they will get themselves into more trouble if they speak out.
“What we’ve seen is that if we complain or make headlines about it, we get more inspections,” said a bar owner who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation from the commission.
City officials have also heard a lot about it.
“It’s not just one group complaining that they’re overstepping their authority,” Honolulu City Council member Andria Tupola said of the Liquor Commission. “Where’s the check and balance for that?”
While executive agencies like the Liquor Commission generally operate independently, council members and Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi may have a chance to rein in the commission after some said it ran amok when applying Covid-19 restrictions.
Two recent departures have created openings at the top. To fill one of the vacancies, which is part of the five-member board that oversees the commission and chairs the hearings, Blangiardi tapped Seth Buckley, a local lawyer who specializes in working with small businesses. Buckley’s nomination is expected to be voted on by City Council on July 6.
Meanwhile, commission administrator Don Pacarro quietly resigned after nearly eight years to join the Honolulu district attorney’s office in April. Since then, the post has been filled temporarily by Anna Hirai, who has worked for the commission for more than 20 years.
Although the five-member commission – not Blangiardi – will hire Pacarro’s replacement, Blangiardi spokesman Ian Scheuring said the mayor can ensure his appointees share his vision for how government should work.
“The Mayor understands and appreciates that each commission operates independently, but given the accountability these commissions have to our communities, he also believes that each person appointed to the commission should possess the same values he seeks in senior city administration officials,” he said. said in a statement. “It prioritizes candidates who are committed not only to faithful service to the public, but to doing their utmost to earn the public’s trust by operating with objectivity and high integrity in all that they do.
“All appointees, including Seth Buckley, are being reviewed by the mayor with this in mind, and we look forward to the impact they will each have on their commissions,” Scheuring said.
Scheuring said it would be important for Pacarro’s successor to treat bar owners fairly.
“During his tenure on the Honolulu Liquor Commission, Don Pacarro never directly challenged requests by Mayor Blangiardi and Chief Executive (Mike) Formby to conduct objective and impartial investigations,” Scheuring said. “Yet the administration continued to have concerns about the ability of commission investigators to do so, due to ongoing complaints.”
“The mayor has made it clear that the investigations must be conducted in a fair and equitable manner, and that this is the only acceptable way for the commission to operate in the future,” he added.
In an interview, Hirai said the pandemic had been a difficult time for bar and restaurant owners, as well as inspectors tasked with enforcing a series of directives issued by Governor David Ige, Blangiardi and his predecessor, the Former Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell.
In normal times, the administrative rules the commission applies rarely change, Hirai said. And when they change, it’s the result of a deliberative rule-making process.
During the pandemic, Hirai noted, rules governing drinking places changed frequently — regarding social distancing, masks, vaccines, testing — and were implemented by executive order. To complicate matters further, bars without kitchens were treated differently than bars with kitchens. Perhaps the most onerous provision was a rule that allowed Liquor Commission inspectors to close establishments for 24 hours after finding a breach of a Covid-19 restriction.
Hirai said the 24-hour rule was not popular among bar owners, but said it caused them to follow Covid-19 restrictions.
“It wasn’t a punitive thing, it was a corrective thing,” she said. “In that sense, it worked. It got their attention, they tightened up their procedures, and that was the end of it all.
Bar owners remain skeptical
Bar owners have a very different perception. Think Club Rock-Za, the strip club on Boulevard Kapiolani. Nightclub lawyer Michael Green says Club Rock-Za invested thousands of dollars in signage and equipment to comply with Covid-19 restrictions but was cited anyway .
Among the charges, Green said, was that Rock-Za staff improperly shouted an alert to customers and staff that commissioner inspectors had arrived. Ultimately, Green said, the commission agreed to reduce the charges to a $500 fine against a nude dancer who let her Covid-19 mask slip under her nose.
Scarlet Honolulu co-owner Robbie Baldwin is also skeptical.
“It wasn’t once, and nothing has changed,” he said. “It just keeps going and going and going.”
According to the bar’s lawsuit, tensions with the commission escalated when bar workers tried to block inspectors who tried to enter through a backdoor without showing proof of vaccinations, which the bar demanded in order to comply. to Covid mandates.
After Scarlet complained to the commission, according to the lawsuit, Pacarro initiated an audit of Scarlet requiring him to produce his books for inspection – even though Scarlet had only been open six nights between July 1, 2020 and the June 30, 2021.
When the publication Gay Island Guide wrote about Scarlet’s problems with the Liquor Commission, according to the lawsuit, the commission activated the publication by shutting down a daytime event the publication was hosting at the White Sands hotel in Waikiki on the grounds that the event was too loud. The commission also suspended the hotel’s liquor license for 24 hours, according to the suit.
Gay Island Guide is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit, which alleges commission investigators targeted Scarlet and Gay Island Guide because they are LGBTQ+ businesses.
Hirai declined to comment on the lawsuit. But she said it’s not unusual for establishments to complain about being targeted.
When a licensee is cited for an infraction or even receives a warning, she said, inspectors will follow up with another visit as a matter of policy. Additionally, she said, inspectors tend to frequent places with the greatest concentrations of bars and patrons, such as Waikiki and Chinatown, which she says can create a misperception that places in these places are targeted.
Still, Hirai said, the commission is taking a more business-friendly, collaborative approach to regulating companies under Blangiardi.
To that end, it has set up an online license application intended to speed up license renewals for its 1,486 licensees, which include retailers and breweries as well as bars and restaurants. As of June 21, she said, 1,316 had filed annual renewal applications and 1,239 had completed the renewal process.
“I believe there is a change,” she said of the commission’s stance on business. “It can be slow, with discrete steps. But I can see the movement.