Michigan’s restaurant owners want to serve customers in their dining rooms again, and they’re now outlining step-by-step changes to their operations that they hope will let them do that.
They’ll buy Plexiglass counter shields that sell for $157 each. Take staff temperatures before shifts and regulate hand-washing. Ask customers to just order takeout if they have a cough or diarrhea. Reconfigure dining rooms. Ensure that cleaning products can remove COVID-19 from surfaces.
And masks: Ordering personal protective equipment (PPE) for everyone on staff is on the list, too.
Those actions -- among an eight-category checklist and 26 pages of suggestions -- came from the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association on Friday as it asks Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to set requirements for reopening.
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They also want a date. So far, the state hasn’t addressed restaurants in announcements for re-engaging the Michigan economy, but the $19 billion industry has one in mind: May 29.
On average, more than 20 restaurants every day in Michigan will close for good from March 16, when restaurant dining rooms were closed by executive order, to the end of May, said Justin Winslow, CEO of the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association. That’s based on survey data from mid-April that showed 4 percent of owners say they won’t reopen at all.
“That’s alarming,” Winslow said. “That shows how necessary the opportunity to open is to the industry.”
Recommended roadmap for restaurant reopening
- Expand and establish cleaning procedures.
- Develop a COVID-19 response team, customized for small restaurants and large chains.
- Employee health and PPE requirements.
- Customer health and social distancing.
- Managing food pick-up and delivery.
- Verify third parties, guidance for working with vendors and suppliers.
- Reopening water systems for safe consumption and use.
- Menu and the supply chain.
Source: Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association
Whitmer on Thursday extended the statewide stay-at-home order first issued in March, stretching it to May 28 for non-essential businesses. She and her advisers are working from a six-stage reopening plan that sets criteria for opening business sectors based on COVID-19 trends and public risk factors.
Manufacturing got the go-ahead to get back into production with Whitmer’s latest orders, but several industries -- retail, personal care businesses and others -- join restaurants in waiting for approval.
“We need to continue to be smart, to do this in incremental stages, to listen to the data, to ramp up the testing,” Whitmer said Thursday.
Michigan is currently still in phase three of pandemic recovery, meaning it was flattening the growth curve, Whitmer said. According to the state’s plan, the next phase would show sustained improvement in managing the virus, while opening dining rooms could come in the fifth phase, when the virus is contained.
Setting expectations for restaurant owners now will let them plan ahead and be ready to rebuild lost business, Winslow said. So far, 249,000 restaurant employees in the state are out of work, and the industry lost $1.2 billion in sales during April.
“Michigan restaurants have been decimated,” Winslow said.
The proposed playbook comes with practical tips that give some insight into what likely will be changing as the state’s 17,500 restaurants welcome consumers back to their tables.
Most of the steps come from health resources like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Guidance and the Federal Drug Administration.
They also are emerging best practices for reopening restaurants from the 50 percent of states that already allow some form of dining-room service. They include Georgia, Florida, and -- as of May 21 -- Ohio.
Before opening their dining rooms, restaurants in Ohio will be able to open their patios on Friday, May 15.
Michigan restaurants aren’t asking for an early patio-only opening date, but Winslow and his members would like by May 15 for the governor to finalize requirements for Michigan’s restaurants to re-open, to give restaurant owners time to prepare for letting customers into their dining rooms two weeks later.
“It’s the minimum time they need to prepare,” Winslow said. That includes lining up supplies, setting new processes into place and training staff on new procedures.
The plan presented to the governor’s office is intended as a roadmap not just for how a major sector of MIchigan’s economy can start producing again, or rehire.
It’s also designed to rebuild confidence among the public, Winslow said.. One piece missing from all of the planning for reopening is an understanding of how consumers will respond to the opportunity to dine in a restaurant again, after two months of watching infections and deaths due to COVID-19 in Michigan. As of this week, more than 4,300 residents have died of the virus.
National polling suggests that most customers could take up to six months to feel comfortable dining out again. For 20 percent, it could be longer.
Reopening success all comes down to customers’ responses, Winslow said. Setting up safety measures for staff and customers starts the plan in motion, Winslow said. He expects trust will build, he said.
“They know they’re not going to open on May 29 and find 100 percent of the general public eager and willing to flood back in,” Winslow said.
“Customers are going to vote with their feet whether or not they feel safe coming back to their local restaurant,” he said. “All a restaurant can do is demonstrate they’re meeting and exceeding every level of guidance on how to operate safely.”
The outline presented to Whitmer is the result of multiple conversations, including some among restaurant owners and her economic recovery council, Winslow said. It consolidates information in the hopes that setting direction for the industry is the next step. Some steps already taken by the administration include liquor buybacks by the state, with Whitmer calling financial losses to the industry “incredibly devastating.”
“Our goal is not to excoriate the governor,” Winslow said. “It’s trying to convince the governor and administration that we’re an industry capable of operating.”
Some of the safety points proposed for Michigan emphasizes the cleaning and disinfecting processes already addressed in licensing requirements. However, there’s not likely to be state scrutiny initially upon reopening.
“Reopening will most likely not require an inspection,” according to the section on cleaning procedures.
The document also calls for restaurants to make multiple operational decisions. They include new staff policies, along with reviewing existing ones. Examples of questions raised: How often do servers need to clean their attire? How are health screenings conducted?
Customer interaction needs to be systematized, the recommendations say, along with all of the coronavirus steps put into place. That will need a point person for COVID-19 issues.
“Your organization will need to appoint a ‘COVID-19 lead’ for every shift and a protocol for COVID-19 issues within your organization,” according to advice in the response team section. “Who in your organization will answer COVID-19 questions from consumers? Who will collect and maintain employee health screening and temperature? Who will enforce the social distancing inside the dining room, takeout pickup area, and waiting area?”
The proposal also sets a heightened expectation of enforcement when it comes to customers.
”Generally, if business has a reasonable belief that the guest poses a safety risk to the other guests and staff, it may refuse to accommodate the guest,” according to one point in the reopening plan.
Managing food pickup and delivery to minimize exposure to germs will remain a focus for the industry, according to Winslow. About 45 percent of Michigan restaurants are trying to maintain business through carryout and delivery.
With reopening, restaurants will need to manage carryout logistics within an active dining room that needs to maintain six feet of distance between customers.
The bottom line, Winslow said, is that Michigan needs to act soon to get its restaurant industry in line to reopen. It’s his hope that the state is not among the last in the U.S. to identify what it expects from its bars and restaurants.
“They need to be given that opportunity on the 29th,” Winslow said. “It’s necessary so they’re not closing for good.”
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