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Michigan’s COVID indoor dining ban expires within days. Or will it?

Dec. 7 update: Gretchen Whitmer says Michigan COVID ‘pause’ will go at least 12 more days

Michigan’s three-week “pause” that, among other things, closed indoor service at bars and restaurants expires on Tuesday, but business owners around the state express little hope that they’ll see the end of coronavirus health and safety restrictions next week.

So far, state officials won’t say whether Robert Gordon, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, will lengthen restrictions that closed indoor dining, movie theaters, bowling alleys and non-tribal casinos, while also closing high schools, reducing retail capacity at stores and ending high school sports. 

However, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is signaling that an extension of Michigan’s latest coronavirus health orders is possible as the deadly pandemic once again escalates across the state.

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Ongoing data collection will put officials “in a much stronger position to really assess if there are some things that maybe are safer to do,” Whitmer said in a news conference Thursday.  “But if we have to make some extensions of the current pause in some realms, that is sadly possible because of just sheer volume of COVID.”

Tensions are mounting amid the restrictions. Bars and restaurants are struggling as they rely on carryout sales during what normally is their busiest time of the year. Casinos, movie theaters and bowling alleys had only been reopened for weeks when the pause took effect. Some owners, describing themselves as desperate, are opening in defiance, with the state investigating several dozen reports of violations. 

A coalition of the affected businesses doesn’t dispute the need for safety precautions during the pandemic. However, many contend that state restrictions are often too broad, without sufficient consideration of the ability of businesses to operate safely for customers and employees. They argue that fallout from sweeping, industry-wide restrictions “dramatically supersedes any benefit that might result from an extended indoor shutdown of these industries.

“We acknowledge that these are challenging times for Michiganders everywhere and that sacrifice is required of all of us as we collectively seek to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus,” according to a letter sent Friday to Gordon from five leisure and hospitality business organizations.

“We do not agree, however, that the sacrifice rests only upon our industries.”

The letter is signed by the Bowling Center Association of Michigan; Michigan Brewers Guild; Michigan Licensed Beverage Association; Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association and the National Association of Theatre Owners of Michigan. 

A copy of the letter was sent to Whitmer, a Democrat, and the Republican leaders of the state’s Legislature, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and Speaker of the House of Representatives Lee Chatfield, who have leveled similar criticism at the Whitmer administration.

Whitmer on Thursday said officials continue to evaluate the duration and effectiveness of the restrictions. A few more days of data will further guide them in the decision, she added.

“We are looking at the data every single day and trying to make decisions with the best information that we have,” Whitmer said. 

Michigan is on pace to pass 3,000 COVID deaths in December, a number that would rival the 3,500 who died in April. Recent data show nearly 16 percent of Michigan residents examined for the virus test positive, the highest rate since April and an indication of rapid community spread. The number of cases this month so far is 67 for every 100,000 people. A month earlier, it was 31.

Legislative Republicans are urging Whitmer to not extend the three-week restaurant dining room shutdown, which is to expire Tuesday. Shirkey said. “We may make that a negotiation point in some of the lame-duck conversations.”

"I don’t believe there’s going to be any data to support the continuation of the closure,” Shirkey said. 

No industry sector in Michigan is experiencing more job losses than hospitality, according to data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Michigan’s leisure and hospitality jobs – which include the $19 billion restaurant industry, as well as bars and hotels – declined by 32 percent as of October when compared to the previous year, falling from 436,000 positions to 296,200. That left at least 139,800 people without jobs in those fields as the industry heads into late fall and winter. The next highest sector for job loss in the state is education and health services, which lost a total of 52,600 jobs as of the end of October. 

Owners of these businesses and business leaders say they’re trying to stay optimistic that Whitmer’s administration will let the order expire. But few expect that to happen.

“I haven’t lost hope,” said Brian Calley, president of the Small Business Association of Michigan as he spoke Thursday to his members. 

However, he added: “I feel the governor was trying to close the door and set expectations that these restrictions are not going to go away next week.”

Shirkey expressed skepticism that Gordon has the authority to shut down entire industries, something that could be addressed by the Michigan Supreme Court. A federal judge declined to enter an injunction against the state sought by the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association (MRLA) in a lawsuit filed to end the ban on indoor dining. However, the federal judge said he may ask Michigan’s Supreme Court to consider whether Gordon has the authority to set the restrictions. A similar move resulted in limiting Whitmer’s authority in October. 

Outside Michigan, other cities and states have reimposed indoor dining restrictions as cases escalated this fall, including Los Angeles and San Francisco in California; and six states, including Illinois, Kentucky and Minnesota. New York City’s restaurants are bracing for another ban on indoor service. 

According to a study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adults with coronavirus were twice as likely to have reported dining at a restaurant as those who tested negative. The CDC noted that mask use and social distancing can be difficult while eating or drinking, and it rated indoor dining high-risk due to the potential for airborne transmission when people are maskless at tables. 

Gordon, in testimony Thursday before the Joint Select Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic in Lansing, cited bars, restaurants and bowling alleys as high-risk because people take their masks off for a significant amount of time.

Shirkey has called on Whitmer’s administration to identify health metrics businesses could rely upon to know when they are eligible to reopen. But Gordon said Thursday it isn’t practical to reduce such calls to specific metrics due to difficulties in “predicting the course of the virus.” Factors the state considers include:

  • The number of emergency department visits for coronavirus-like illness and COVID-19 inpatient admissions
  • Whether rates of positive test results and reported COVID cases plateau or decline
  • Whether there are plateaus in case rates by onset date
  • The number of infected people filling up hospital intensive care units and inpatient beds 
  • And the ability of local health departments to track the spread of the coronavirus

Yet Michigan’s restaurant operators – who’ve struggled with more than eight months of shutdown or restrictions – worry they’ll be forced to join the estimated 2,000 bars and restaurants that have closed permanently. 

“I have no money. Customers have no money,” said Amady Gueye, owner of Maty’s Cuisine in northwest Detroit for almost five years. “I open my business for nothing.”

Gueye is trying to maintain his Senegalese restaurant with four employees, but his lease recently expired and he said he faces a monthly rent increase of $250. A $500 grant from a group in Detroit was welcomed but not enough. And his Small Business Administration loan request remains in process after five months, he said. 

“I don’t think this is going to last too long,” Gueye said when asked how long he can maintain with a small carryout business. “I have no money to pay bills. Everything is due. If they don’t help us, everything is going to be shut down.”

Sales losses at Michigan bars and restaurants in the first two months of the pandemic reached $8 billion, according to Justin Winslow, CEO of the MRLA, the restaurant industry group. Unclear so far are the losses due to the recent restrictions. 

The restrictions that went into effect on Nov. 18 were “devastating to an already challenged industry on life support,” said Johnny Brann Jr. an owner of the Grand Rapids-based Brann’s Steakhouses. 

Once an employer of 700, Brann’s now is down to about 70 staff members as it tries to function as a carryout restaurant until it can reopen dining rooms. 

 

As much as the restaurant is struggling, Brann said, he knows his laid-off staff members are, too. New federal stimulus funds could help keep thousands of restaurants from closing, he said, and he wonders why the state isn’t offering more communication and assistance. 

Instead, Brann said, he sees reports of fines issued to restaurants and bars that open in violation of the order. Opening in defiance could be seen as desperation, and Brann suggested the state could get more compliance from recognizing the tough situation for affected businesses. 

“This is a state-mandated pause, and it would be nice to get some support from the state,” he said. “It’s very hard to make up for not being open.”

Restaurant workers active in the Service Industry Workers of the Ann Arbor Area Facebook group view restrictions from two angles, said organizer Gabi Bussell. 

There’s a push and a pull,” Bussell said. “For the most part, workers don’t think they should be open right now. But another group says they should be because ‘we need the money.’”

Anticipating early this week that the three-week pause will continue, Bussell started a Go Fund Me for laid-off restaurant workers. Over the past two weeks, 75,000 Michigan residents filed new unemployment claims. Based on the timing, many are likely among the layoffs triggered from the health restrictions.

Bussell said some of those workers,  if they’d still been working through early fall, hadn’t been earning as much as before COVID-19. Now, she said, they also see the end of federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance for part-time workers when it expires Dec. 31, yet another threat to their livelihood.

“It’s especially scary when we don’t see any relief in sight,” Bussell said. “It’s been really rough.”

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