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Business leaders to Whitmer: Time to ease Michigan restaurant restrictions

closed restaurant
Michigan bars and restaurants are able to open at 25 percent capacity. In a recent survey, one-third of operators said they worry about going out of business because of those restrictions. (Shutterstock image)

Related: Senate Republicans: Use clear metrics to guide restaurant COVID closings

One month after Michigan’s bars and restaurants were allowed to reopen at 25-percent capacity, statewide business leaders are urging Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to increase how many customers are permitted in indoor dining rooms.

A group of 14 regional business associations sent a letter to Whitmer on Monday, saying they’re “encouraged by the data” on coronavirus trends in the state. The decline in cases since January, they hope, will inspire her to allow the next phase of reopening.


“It is no secret that some industries, based on the sheer nature of their industries, have been impacted more than others,” according to the letter signed by the group that includes chambers of commerce representing the state, Detroit region and Grand Rapids.

“Our restaurant industry has fallen into this category and continues to face barriers to remaining in business. Our organizations support the concept of a graduated reopening of restaurants that is science based and data-driven.”

The intent of the letter is to raise concerns about the restaurant industry’s viability at 25-percent capacity while acknowledging that safety protocols will need to be part of reopening, said Andy LaBarre, executive vice president and director of government relations for the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti Regional Chamber of Commerce.

“There is no perfect way to reopen restaurants,” said LaBarre, adding that the groups want to “open as soon as we can in ways that are safe.”

Whitmer and Robert Gordon, former director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, announced a “pause” on indoor dining on Nov. 17 as coronavirus cases across the state were climbing rapidly. 

The ruling also temporarily closed high schools, movie theaters and other public group settings.  Health experts at that time had forecast another spike in hospitalizations, and Whitmer and Gordon pointed to concerns about viral spread in restaurants.

At the time, the state’s seven-day average of new cases was 6,932. It was 1,977 when the state announced the Feb. 1 reopening and is now 1,107.

While Whitmer has hinted that she may soon relax rules, she also defended the state’s cautious approach, telling reporters on Feb. 18 that Michigan is "in a stronger place than most other places in the nation right now" because "we're being very thoughtful about incrementally re-engaging sectors of our economy that just inherently pose a higher risk." 

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Scott Ellis, president of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association, told Bridge Michigan on Monday that his group has been talking to state officials for the past several weeks, and members are optimistic they’ll hear an opening plan soon.

One proposal suggested opening at 50-percent capacity with a midnight curfew, Ellis said. 

“With the coronavirus numbers dropping, we’re hoping to hear some good news very soon,” Ellis said.

Meanwhile, the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Industry Association released a proposal on Feb. 16 requesting that bars and restaurants could:

  • Operate at 50 percent capacity with seated service only but no curfew at the state's current seven-day positivity rate of 3.9 percent. 
  • Operate without limits if the rate dropped below 3 percent.
  • Return to a 10 p.m. curfew and mandatory contact tracing if seven-day averages climb to 7 percent, limit capacity to 25 percent if the rate topped 10 percent and close indoor dining if they surpassed 15 percent.

Michigan’s seven-day positivity rate is now 3.4 percent.

Michigan bars and restaurants employed some 447,000 and generated $18 billion in revenue in 2018, the most recent year available, while employing 9 percent of the state’s workers and generating 3 percent of its payroll. 

As of year-end 2020, Michigan’s leisure and hospitality industry had lost 205,000 jobs, according to federal employment data.

The industry is still struggling with the 25 percent capacity limit, with a recent survey indicated one-third of operators worried about their survival.

“We’re at a critical point again,” Ellis said, describing most of the affected operators as small, independent business owners.

Yet he said he’s also optimistic that support for reopening is building among government officials, business leaders and the public.

LaBarre of the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti chamber agreed, saying business leaders want to make sure “we don’t lose some of the progress we’ve made here in the last three to four months.”

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