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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Michigan softens restaurant rules requiring customer info during COVID

Nov. 15 update: Michigan to close high schools, colleges, bars for 3 weeks as COVID spikes

One day after new contact tracing regulations were imposed on Michigan restaurants and bars, the state health department softened requirements for collecting customers’ names and phone numbers. 

Under the new guidelines released Tuesday, the state recommends — but does not require — dining establishments deny entry to customers who won’t provide contact information. The state also said it will not hold restaurants or bars responsible for patrons who provide false information, and will not require businesses to ask for proof of identification. 

The clarifications were issued after the state restaurant industry expressed frustration Monday on how to interpret safety rules announced last week that were intended to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

Last Thursday, Robert Gordon, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, issued a series of new restrictions impacting restaurants, bars and other indoor businesses. They included a requirement for businesses to collect the names and phone numbers of patrons so that health officials could later warn them if there was a virus outbreak. Other changes included requiring restaurants to limit tables to six customers or fewer, and that customers wear masks even while seated, except when eating and drinking. In addition, crowd sizes at indoor events like banquets, weddings and conferences were limited to 50 people, down from 500. 

 

The new rules took effect on Monday, but with no state-issued guidelines on how to interpret some of the fine points. As Bridge Michigan reported Monday, restaurants were frustrated by the lack of clarity on key points: 

What should restaurants do if customers won’t give their names? Will restaurants be responsible if customers give false information? Must everyone at the table, even children, provide identification? 

“We have had hundreds and hundreds of calls from our members about this,” Justin Winslow, CEO of the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association, told Bridge Michigan on Monday in reaction to the safety rules. 

MDHHS answered those questions and others in a release Tuesday

  • Organizations should collect only the name, phone number and date and time of service of patrons. No address or other information is needed.
  • Restaurants are not responsible for verifying customer information, though they must store what they are given for 28 days.
  • The information won’t be given to a local or state health department unless one requests it.
  • It also won’t be given to law enforcement or immigration officials, unless a subpoena requires it. It “will be protected as confidential information to the fullest extent of the law,” according to the state.
  • Restaurants are “encouraged” to collect information from all members of a party, or parent information for minors. However, one person per household is acceptable, the state said.
  • Under the new guidance, restaurants have a choice when customers won’t comply with the information request: “MDHHS recommends that the facility deny entry to the patron.”

Michigan’s troubled restaurant industry hopes the new requirements will not curtail business or anger customers.

“We’ll see how this works out,” Winslow said Tuesday. 

A business’s failure to ask for this customer information is a misdemeanor, carrying up to a six-month jail term and a possible $1,000 civil fine. 

On Tuesday, Lynn Sutfin, MDHHS spokesperson, said the department had updated its coronavirus website to add a Q&A on collection of customer information for contact tracing. It’s now listed among Oct. 29 document links under the gatherings and facemask order of the same day.

Still unclear is how much of this guidance reached restaurants and local health departments on Tuesday, which is a state holiday for Election Day. Many county offices in Michigan also are closed. An email to MDHSS from Bridge Michigan was not returned.

After looking at the new guidelines Tuesday, Winslow said, “They’re clarifying, for sure. Some basic unknowns were addressed.”

However, concerns for the industry remain, he said. Durng an MRLA board call on Monday night, restaurant owners shared what Winslow described as  “frustrations that there had been some altercations already on day one.”

The altercations involved asking patrons for their personal information, and being met with a challenge.

Some restaurant owners on Monday tried to head off potential conflict by asking for customer information once at the table, instead of “creating a confrontation situation at the door,” Winslow said. 

Last week’s order to get information for contact tracing came as outbreaks among bars and restaurants jumped in Michigan. According to the state website, which was updated since Monday evening to reflect October 29 data, 21 new outbreaks were reported most recently and eight outbreaks continue. Among the new outbreaks, 11 involved restaurant employees. Six of those were in Region 2, or Detroit and surrounding counties in southeastern Michigan.

In comparison to the 21 new outbreaks tied to restaurants and bars, there were 16 in manufacturing or construction, 14 in offices and eight in retail.

While privacy issues remain a concern in the industry – and caused similar requirements in Washington state to be rescinded – the state says the information is only to be used if contact tracing becomes necessary.

“Data collected for the purposes of this order should not be sold, or used for sales or marketing purposes,” the Q&A says.

The ACLU of Michigan said it welcomed the specific protections against sharing the information, and it plans to give MDHHS feedback if more questions arise.

“This additional guidance should give people confidence that their personal information will be kept private and used for the very limited purpose of stemming the spread of COVID-19,” Bonsitu Kitaba, ACLU of Michigan deputy legal director, told Bridge in a statement. 

Kitaba added:  “The guidance also makes clear that customers and businesses will not be punished if a customer chooses not to provide their personal information.”

The state encourages restaurants to use existing data to fulfill the requirement, such as online reservation bookings. 

The regulations also apply to other businesses, including stadiums and cinemas, according to the state, because people there “may not know who the people are who were near them.”

“Venues collecting patrons’ names and numbers allows public health officials to more quickly contact someone who might have contracted COVID-19.”

Cases of coronavirus continue to increase in Michigan, with hospitalizations climbing Monday to nearly 2,000 statewide, the most since early May. 

Meanwhile, Winslow said restaurant operators are worried about their futures. A recent survey showed that 20 percent of Michigan restaurants may not survive until spring.

They’re concerned that the new regulation, which follows controversial mandatory mask orders in Michigan by several months, could keep customers away at a time when most desperately need the sales.

“It’s potential deterrence and frustration among patrons (that’s a worry),” Winslow said. “It feels like it could be creating an awful lot of strife and turmoil for very little payback.”

That’s not to challenge the need for public health attention to the virus, he added.

“Is the strife you’re going to cause the industry worth this?” he said “If the answer is yes, we’ll move past this.”

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