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Michigan restaurants welcome ‘lifeline’ after Whitmer increases capacity

restaurant table
Michigan lost more than 200,000 restaurant jobs last year during the coronavirus pandemic. (Shutterstock image)

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

Limits on indoor dining, store capacity and other gatherings will relax on Friday following weeks of mostly positive trends in the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Tuesday.

The change is long-awaited for the troubled food and beverage industry whose operators are struggling to survive, according to advocates. The change allows bars and restaurants to expand seating capacity from 25 percent to 50 percent, up to 100 people.

“Another step forward is very important for us,” said Scott Ellis, executive director of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association. “We hope it’s just the start of a full reopening.”

Scott Ellis
Scott Ellis, executive director of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association, said the move is ‘another step forward.’ (Courtesy photo)

The latest changes, Whitmer said, will allow Michigan to get more residents back to work by addressing “all of the places where we can safely do more.”

They also come as the vaccine rollout continues, with 824,566 Michiganders now fully inoculated against coronavirus. However, both Whitmer and Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun stressed that the restrictions including mask mandates and social distancing will remain.

“Our progress is very fragile,” Khaldun said.

Restoring restaurant capacity to 50 percent was a months-long battle cry for the $18 billion industry, which lost about 205,000 jobs in the state over the past year. Restaurants had been allowed to operate at 50 percent capacity for several months in 2020, until a rising case count and “second wave” in fall prompted Whitmer’s administration to restrict gatherings and indoor dining.

The initial order was extended until the 25-percent capacity limit took effect on Feb. 1.

Tuesday’s announcement comes as cases are inching up again after a steady decline. Michigan is averaging 1,071 daily cases the past week, up 16 percent from a week earlier, but still well below the 6,932 in mid-November when the state closed dining rooms.

The rollbacks take effect on Friday, and the order will be in effect until April 19. The changes, according to the state:

  • Retail is allowed at 50 percent capacity.
  • Casinos can operate at 30 percent capacity.
  • Indoor stadiums and arenas are allowed to have 375 people if seating capacity is under 10,000 or 750 if seating capacity is over 10,000.
  • Outdoor entertainment and recreational facilities may host up to 1,000 patrons.
  • Indoor entertainment venues are allowed to be at 50 percent capacity, up to 300 people.
  • Exercise facilities are allowed to be at 30 percent capacity.

Social interactions also were relaxed, according to the state:

  • Indoor non-residential gatherings where people interact across households are permitted up to 25 people, allowing public meetings and other small indoor gatherings to resume.
  • Outdoor non-residential gatherings where people interact across households are permitted up to 300, allowing larger outdoor events to resume.

In addition to the changes to restrictions, Whitmer announced plans to form a group to make recommendations for safely returning to in-person office work. Those who can work from home still are requested to do so.

 

Whitmer’s announcement came the same day as Texas and Mississippi ended statewide mask mandates and business restrictions, despite warnings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC’s director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, on Monday said she fears rolling back health restrictions will completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained.

“These (COVID-19) variants are a very real threat to our people and our progress,” Walensky said. “Now is not the time to relax the critical safeguards that we know can stop the spread of COVID-19 in our communities.”

Whitmer said she believes that the state can change the restrictions safely. The Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association said it considers Michigan’s latest order “critically important.”

But its CEO, Justin Winslow, said he’s concerned the order’s duration could make it hard for businesses to plan for staffing and supplies.

“The six-week duration of this order is concerning and significantly too long to adapt to rapidly changing metrics around this virus … ” Winslow said, noting “the fragile state of the hospitality industry.”

Ellis, of the licensed beverage association, said he would have preferred the restaurant curfew to be midnight rather than 11 p.m.

“With capacity limits, it takes longer to get people to rotate through,” Ellis said. “The dinner hour has expanded because of that.“

The 100-person cap in bars and restaurants is another concern, Ellis said, because it may hurt larger establishments that already reach that number at 25-percent capacity. He said removing the cap would help all restaurants no matter the size.

“But for smaller places that couldn’t pay the bills, 50 percent is definitely a lifeline,” Ellis said.

The state’s retailers also will welcome more capacity in their stores, said Jennifer Rook, spokesperson for the Michigan Retailers Association. The 30-percent limit most affected smaller, independent stores, she said.

“A lot of them have pivoted and put up websites, offered virtual shopping, curbside and home delivery,” she said, as signs that they were trying to adapt their business models to pandemic-related changes.

“Going to 50-percent capacity sends a nice message that there’s confidence that these places are safe,” Rook said. 

State outbreak data for businesses show low numbers for bars and restaurants. The most recent report showed a total of three bars in the state suspected of outbreaks, and all three involved only employees.

There were 24 retail outbreaks, seven of them reported in the last week of February, according to the report. Each of those outbreaks also only affected employees and not customers, according to the state.

“It shows that bars and restaurants are not necessarily the problem,” Ellis said.

Related stories:

The state and the industries affected by restrictions will be watching COVID-19 data over the next six weeks. The goal for both is further reopening.

Elizabeth Hertel, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, acknowledged that the loosening of restrictions may lead to higher cases and the increase in the past 10 days comes about a month after restaurants and bars were able to reopen.

But Hertel said Michigan's hospitals have far more capacity now than they did when the state ordered the "pause" on indoor dining. After falling almost every day since Dec. 1, the number of COVID-19 patients treated in Michigan hospitals has risen in recent days, hitting 959 on Tuesday, up from 841 on Feb. 22, the lowest number since the peak of the second wave.

However, that's still a fraction of the 4,300 patients being treated on Nov. 30, the highest level the state recorded during the second wave.

“My hope is that we will see perhaps a continued (case) plateau, maybe a slight increase, then a decrease and we can continue to loosen the restrictions moving forward,” Hertel said.

Ellis said the bar and restaurant industry remains frustrated that it doesn’t know the long-term reopening plan. Operators hope to participate in outlining one.

“At the end of the day, we feel like a benchmark will let us know what the end game is,” he said.

Bridge staff reporter Mike Wilkinson contributed to this report.

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