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Poised for ‘Drinksgiving,’ Michigan bars fret COVID will dampen party

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Drinksgiving’ is Michigan’s biggest bar night of the year. That has health officials worried. (From Shutterstock)

Calling the night before Thanksgiving “the biggest bar night of the year” isn’t just hype, said Kyle Edwards, tap room and production manager at Grand Armory Brewing in Grand Haven.

The annual event — informally known as Drinksgiving — is bigger than the craft brewery’s Halloween parties, and it’s bigger than New Year’s Eve. The night draws more customers than any other event Edwards can recall in the popular spot in the Lake Michigan vacation town.

 

This year, exclusive beers will be on tap, and a DJ will bring vinyl to entertain patrons. “We’re hoping to be busy,” Edwards said. 

But the reality may be differ from the shoulder-to-shoulder evening in 2019. Many regulars, who tend to be aged 35 and up,  are still staying home during the pandemic. And while people may be hungry to get back to normal, the state’s bars aren’t assured of that Wednesday. 

“It’s been pretty hit or miss this year,” Edwards said.

Bars across Michigan depend on Thanksgiving Eve for a boost in sales as patrons celebrate with friends ahead of family gatherings over the four-day weekend.

But this year — as Michigan leads the nation with infection rates and COVID  once again overwhelms its exhausted health care workforce and at times packs its emergency rooms — health officials are begging people to once more play it smart, mask up, and even stay home.

That some folks may pack bars and restaurants this week is mind-boggling to those in public health who have spent the better part of 20 months asking Michiganders to stay safe. 

Their mantra hasn’t much changed.

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“I have two words for you,” said Steve Kelso, spokesperson for the Kent County Health Department. “Get vaccinated.” Beyond that, he and others said: Mask up. Keep your distance. Stay away from others when sick. 

“The script hasn’t changed, and it’s pretty simple,” Kelso said. “People are acting like this is over. Take a trip to our data dashboard, and I can assure you it’s not.”

The state’s hospitals, meanwhile, are running at “contingency levels of care,” meaning delays in patient care and staffing shortages are more routine than unusual, said chief medical officers from hospitals across the state — representing large, small, rural and urban hospitals — in a letter issued Monday by the Michigan Health and Hospitals Association. 

“If we have a new flood of exposures and COVID cases in the next week, two weeks, the question is: How do we manage them?” said 

Dr. Lydia Watson, chief medical officer of Midland-based MidMichigan Health, which on Monday was caring for 141 patients with suspected or confirmed COVID — its highest level since the pandemic hit.

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MidMichigan Health, like many other hospitals, are struggling to care for both COVID patients and those with emergency, non-COVID needs. Holiday gatherings will likely make it worse, said Dr. Lydia Watson, chief medical officer and senior vice president, MidMichigan Health. (Courtesy photo)

Non-urgent medical procedures are being cancelled, and patients are facing waits for care and even, at times, for EMS responders. 

Just how much hospital leaders’ pleas will help is uncertain, she said: “Practically speaking, we’re all fatigued by COVID.”

People long for socialization and a return to a normal holiday, and as a result, “we’ll probably see another spike after the holidays,” she said.

“I think the best that we can ask of people is that they be careful, that they think about this,” said Dr. Jeffrey Desmond, chief medical officer at Michigan Medicine at the University of Michigan. 

And no, he adds, it’s not too late for a vaccine.

“It's not gonna save you from your (infected) uncle sitting next to you at the Thanksgiving table, but it could help to to four to six weeks down the line,” he said. “People are going to go out for Christmas. They're going to gather for New Years.”

A vaccine, he said, “is a play for the long run.”

On Monday, the state recorded its highest rate of positive coronavirus tests in more than a year — with 18.4 percent of nearly 123,000 tests in three days coming back positive. (Higher test positivity rates indicate uncontrolled community spread of the deadly virus.) 

More worrisome perhaps: The state’s hospitals were caring for 3,963 people with confirmed or suspected COVID — a level approaching the all-time high of 4,422 during the spring surge.

A year ago as Thanksgiving approached, Michigan bars and restaurants were ordered to close to indoor service as part of a three-week “pause,” effective November 18, as weeks of escalating COVID-19 cases prompted fears of any gathering ahead of the holiday. Hospital leaders begged residents to cancel routine plans, warning that the “healthcare system can capsize.” 

This year, Michigan faces escalating cases ahead of the year-end holidays once again, with one big difference: Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration has declined to mandate statewide closures as it did last year, noting among other factors the broad availability of vaccines and boosters. 

So far, as a fourth COVID wave ripples across Michigan, bars and restaurants continue as they have since reopening early this year: They’re making their own decisions about operating in a pandemic, even as health officials urge caution.

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Scott Ellis, executive director of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association, says Michigan’s ‘bar night’ won’t be a full rebound to 2019 levels — except maybe in college towns. (photo credit here)

Scott Ellis, executive director of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association, told Bridge Michigan on Monday the state’s bars and restaurants consider the lack of restrictions good for their industry, and point to the low number of outbreaks tied to them as evidence that it’s working. While most drink businesses don’t require servers to be vaccinated, Ellis said, they do encourage it.

Ellis said many of his members — which are mostly independent owner-operators — are not yet back to pre-pandemic sales levels, especially places that don’t also offer extensive food menus. 

One exception is in college towns. In places like Ann Arbor and East Lansing, bar traffic ahead of Thanksgiving is likely to be busy, he said.

“The nightclubs are just killing it,” Ellis said.

Staffing is one of the state bar industry’s biggest challenges, Ellis said. While many bars are not mandating COVID-19 vaccinations, they do want staff to feel safe.

As a result,  patrons may be more likely now than weeks ago to see staff wearing masks even if they’re vaccinated.

“I’m seeing more masks on employees everywhere I got, since this uptick,” Ellis said. “I think that’s the right way to go.”

At the Tap Room in downtown Ypsilanti, doors will be open at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, three hours later than usual due to staffing shortages, and customers won’t get to see the popular annual “Boylesque” drag queen show. The event was cancelled out of caution about the potential crowd, said co-owner Brian Brickley.

Staff will be ready to serve customers, he said, however many show up.

“That’s part of the new era of bar and restaurant ownership,” Brickley said, “and the unpredictability of it all.”

The lack of operating restrictions puts the decision to partake in Drinksgiving squarely on customers. 

“If they want to come get a beer, we want them to come get a beer,” said Edwards, of Grand Armory Brewing.  “But we totally understand anyone who feels not comfortable.”

Brickley, at the Tap Room, calls COVID-19 vaccinations a “game-changer,” and the tool the bar industry didn’t have a year ago when it faced months-long closure.

“Back then, we thought closing was the only way to be safe,” Brickley said. Closures “just can’t happen again. Businesses can’t survive. It’s a balancing act.”

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