‘Shock and despair’ as Michigan bars, restaurants take another COVID hit


Michigan’s bar and restaurant industry starts another shutdown of indoor service on Wednesday. (Shutterstock)

Nov. 20: Judge won't allow Michigan restaurants to immediately reopen dining rooms

The coronavirus roller coaster continues for Michigan’s bar and restaurant industry, which now starts another shutdown of indoor service on Wednesday.

The announcement of the three-week “pause” by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services on Sunday evening follows weeks of escalating COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the state. By the end of last week, hospital directors were pleading with state residents to wear masks and cancel plans for large gatherings at Thanksgiving. 

Michigan’s retailers now face 30 percent capacity limitations, down from 50 percent, while bars and restaurants will be closed to indoor service for the three weeks.


For bars in particular, the move represents yet another step backward in the up-and-down pandemic year. Many of them now have been closed more than they’ve been open.

“Our industry has been devastated and this is just another nail in the coffin for many businesses,” said Scott Ellis, CEO of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association, in a news release as the latest order was announced. 

The state’s bars and restaurants were first shuttered by state executive order last spring when the coronavirus infiltrated Michigan. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer allowed them to reopen for indoor service – with capacity limitations – on June 8, but by July 1 bars throughout lower Michigan were once again ordered to close. They were permitted to reopen again in early October with table service and social distancing.

There are 8,500 active on-premise liquor licenses in Michigan, Ellis said, representing bars and restaurants. Nationally, food and liquor sales in bars totaled $19.9 billion in 2017, the latest year for which figures are available.

With the latest closure, Ellis joins other business leaders, including the Michigan Restaurant Association, in asking for relief for hospitality workers. 

“As the governor said, we’re at a precipice and there is a need for action. If we’re being told to sit back, be patient and not act, we expect our leaders to have a plan,” Ellis said. “We expect our Legislature and governor to be taking the steps necessary to ensure that our industry survives.”

Ellis spoke Monday with Paula Gardner, Bridge Michigan’s business editor. Here are excerpts from the conversation:

Scott Ellis is CEO of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association

What are you thinking as you figure out what this means to your industry and its thousands of employees?

It’s been a long couple of days trying to figure out why and how we again want to blame bars and restaurants [for the coronavirus’ spread]. We’re less than 4 percent of the outbreaks based on state numbers (as of Nov. 5). 

The updated numbers on Monday showed Michigan bars were responsible for 2 new outbreaks and 10 ongoing outbreaks among 983 total in the state. Restaurants, as a group, had 19 new outbreaks and 23 ongoing cases. 

I do understand where the governor is coming from. I’m not arguing one bit that numbers are on the rise and hospitals are being overrun. I’m not debating that at all, and no one can.

But we have to learn to balance economics with this.... When bars and restaurants are at 50 percent, why – again – are they targeted (when privtae social gatherings are responsible for more cases?) I don’t get it. 

The news seems to be hitting everyone hard.

Our people are more terrified than ever. There’s no funding or anything to help them. At all. [Our inside service is] being shut down for a minimum of three weeks. 

I’m fearful that it’s going to be longer.

What’s the risk to your industry at this point?

Three weeks ago, we were looking at 20-some percent would close permanently. We’ll be doing another survey at the end of this week. We are concerned about 40 percent to 50 percent never reopening because there’s no funding to help them.

Where would you want that to come from?

There is a restaurant and bar package at the federal level, [The RESTAURANTS Act, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives and stalled in the Senate]. We’re monitoring that and trying to get that through.

We’re hoping that [Michigan] can do something else at the state level. Help us pay our bills, help us pay our taxes. All of those things that still have to be paid no matter what.

How are your members reacting so far?

Absolute anger. Confusion. Despair. What can we do?

Everyone is in shock and despair about why we are at this point again. We’re wearing masks. We’re socially distanced. We’re at 50 percent capacity, but I don’t know very many [bars and restaurants] that even reached 50 percent. They were doing just enough to survive and keep people employed, and as of Wednesday, thousands of people will be laid off, just before the holidays. 

Many have said, ‘Can I just stay open and take the violation?’ I can’t recommend that. But that’s the point many of these places are: thinking they’ll go under either way.

Who is most vulnerable in this scenario?

The majority of our membership: the small, family-owned business with one location and small seating, with a (full) capacity of 50 to 75. They’re barely paying the bills, and have been depending on savings. The industry was doing so well prior to this, but that savings is long gone. They’ve used [Paycheck Protection Program loans], anything they could. That’s long gone. 

That carries so many implications for our small towns, which count on these places as downtown destinations. 

They’re the social life. Their local bars are their meeting places. They’ll shut down, and towns are going to hurt. A lot of us were looking to some normalcy to continue to go to those places, following the rules, and getting out (of the house). Here we are with another lockdown, which is a whole other mental health issue.

Our industry, for whatever reason, we’re just targeted. The numbers the state had [as of Monday morning were small] and do not show bars and restaurants being the problem. We’re still baffled. We don’t understand when we meet the standards and wear the masks how we end up on the slaughtering block.

Was there any point where Michigan’s bars seemed to have some momentum for survival?

Summer months, people were surviving. The state did a good job at allowing outdoor service areas and to bend any way we could to stay open. 

Are employees affected yet?

There are going to be large layoffs Tuesday night. The layoffs are starting already. 

I own MichiGrain Distillery in Lansing, and I laid off my (6-person) serving staff and general manager an hour ago. We’ll still work in the back half and produce our products. But the tasting room, the bar side, is going to be shutting down and unfortunately those employees had to be laid off.

This is personal for you, too.

It’s hard for everybody. This isn’t throwing stones at the governor, blaming her 100 percent for all of this. It’s just emotional, the situation we’re in.

I feel like we have to find a way to operate safely. If our numbers were showing we are the problem, I would be way more apt to accept it. The comment was made, “Places where people gather are caught in it.” Well, show me the numbers. That’s where we’re asking for help.

What do you want from the state in about 2½ weeks as the “pause” winds down?

I’m reaching out to legislators, seeing if we can put together some sort of package. I know every industry is hurting. It’s just a hard situation. 

Unemployment [benefits are] there, which isn’t the greatest, but it’s there. We’re asking the federal legislators to push for that restaurant package and the stimulus package.

We still all have to pay our bills. The (U.S.) Small Business Administration, early in this pandemic, paid six months of its loans for the smallest businesses. We would love to see that come back.

We’re open to ideas. When these men and women run for office, that’s part of their job to help us figure out how to do it.

What can Michigan residents do?

We’re asking every customer, please, if you’ve been going out or even if you haven’t, please think of servers, and carryout, and outdoor seating, or gift cards. Every little bit helps.

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Tue, 11/17/2020 - 12:44am

What did you people expect? Were you promoting safety or just wild free market capitalism and political clown worship? Why is a neurologist like Atlas giving advice about epidemiology? Is it just because he's a friend of Don who will do what Don says? It's time for everyone to grow up. This farce has gone on long enough.

Tue, 11/17/2020 - 12:50am

Republican legislature sued the governor, then attended superspreader Trump rallies. Most of these businesses support Trump. They think they can promote recklessness with no consequences. Go figure. No one wants to shut down our state, but the Republicans in this state are complete irresponsible failures.

Wed, 11/18/2020 - 9:27am

Yup. Trump absolutely screwed up the opportunity to stop COVID and here we are. Repeatedly. And then the Republican controlled Senate doesn't want to help business with the economic mess Trump created but these people want to blame anyone but Trump and the Republicans!

Tue, 11/17/2020 - 7:21am

The Evil Queen has spoken once again, circumventing the voice of the people in the legislature and ruling by royal decree. She's bound and determined to destroy this states economy then try to blame the Republicans for it.

The media is more than willing to go along with her. Impartial and investigative journalism is dead.

I call BS
Tue, 11/17/2020 - 9:23am

Jake, what voice? Your boys in the legislature are at home sick with covid instead of leading our state. Seriously what have your GOP Gods in the legislature done to help our economy? They will not do something so simple as to require wearing a mask.

Paul Jordan
Tue, 11/17/2020 - 9:29am

Jake, you don't seem to understood that the coronavirus epidemic is a fact. This virus is unlike others because it can be spread by people who have no symptoms and don't know that they are infected. Most people who are infected survive, but a substantial proportion have long lasting impairment of their health, and some other people die.

The more people are gathered in one place, the more people do not wear masks to protect themselves and others, the greater the chance that SOMEONE will already be infected and pass it on to others.

These are FACTS, not opinions.

Places that bring lots of people together (like bars and restaurants) will be avoided by health-conscious people until this virus is defeated--which will take all of us working together. What the governor is doing is called 'leadership'.

The economy will not recover until we defeat the virus whether the bars & restaurants are open or closed. What ALL of us need to do is forcefully demand that President Trump and the Senate pass economic support legislation in the lame duck session to help businesses and workers survive. (The House already passed the legislation long ago.)

Tue, 11/17/2020 - 9:03am

I do feel sorry for most of the owners of these establishments but my guess is the people who will complain the most about being closed are the ones who also complained about following CDC guidelines and ignored them in their private life making the virus spread faster.

Tue, 11/17/2020 - 9:25am

Absolutely. Self inflicted wounds and now crocodile tears. No pity for their dumb decisions. We the People are the victims of their poor decisions, not them.

Jake D
Tue, 11/17/2020 - 9:20am

I blame the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the GOP. The downfall started at July 4 gatherings, exasperated by contesting the governor's emergency orders, opening schools, and the coup de grace Trump rallies without masks. Covid is not political. Don't think all the Republican governors will not follow suit. The stakes are too high not to act now. The Detroit Chamber of Commerce on the other hand promoted sane policies, even if a little late to the party. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the GOP are insane.

Walter P. Duro
Wed, 11/18/2020 - 9:22am

The BizLeader/Chamber/MEDC Gang "owns" the Michigan Legislature...and Gretchen.

Tue, 11/17/2020 - 9:30am

Seen on a social media platform:

"If your social life has changed as a result of shut-down orders, you are the reason for shut down orders."

Please take personal responsibility for your behavior and stop willfully and maliciously spreading this plague all over the state. Wearing a mask creates the freedom to keep businesses open and thriving. You want businesses to thrive (as most people do), then wear a mask and stop the weddings, the parties, the community gatherings. You want this state to die economically, YET AGAIN?? Don't wear a mask, keep attending massive weddings and parties, celebrations, etc. The choice is yours. Everyone is personally responsible for the physical and economic health of Michigan.

NO ONE likes this--just do reasonable, common sense things so that we can get out of this sooner than later. It is not too much to ask.

Tue, 11/17/2020 - 11:13pm

Sorry Rose, the mask does absolutely nothing to prevent you from getting the virus, and quite likely helps to speed it faster because of everyone constantly touching their faces. The bottom line of that we would already be over this months ago if we had simply carried on with life as normal back in March. It is a virus with a .2% mortality rate and really on dangerous to those with exacerbating conditions. The best thing to do is go back to life as normal and get over this as quickly as possible. The VAST majority of people will have little more than flu like symptoms for a few days. Meh!

Wed, 11/18/2020 - 1:46pm

OK, let's check your math. Michigan deaths to date 8128 / 272034 cases = 2.988% mortality rate. Experts believe that, to reach herd immunity, we need at least 80% of the population either vaccinated or to have had the disease. So, to "get this over as quickly as possible," short availability of a vaccine, you would have 7.8m Michiganders get sick and 234,259 DIE? That's almost as many just in our state as in the whole country so far. Meh? I am so grateful for the persistent, strong, and DATA-BASED efforts the Governor and her experts are making to keep us safe.

Bad data
Sun, 11/22/2020 - 4:28am

Your data is incorrect. There is a .2% mortality rate, not 2.98. The mortality rate is inflated because people with other conditions die and just happen to have COVID. Example: Mortally obese woman with heart failure has heart attack and also has corona virus....COVID listed as cause of death. The reporting is wildly inaccurate. If a person does not have some other condition that increases the risk of Corona virus then the virus is not a big deal. We HAVE to get exposed to get through this. All we have accomplished so far is delaying the inevitable and ruining our economy. If you are afraid then isolate yourself. Relax Chicken Little, the sky is not falling.

Paul Jordan
Tue, 11/17/2020 - 9:33am

It is painful, but good, that governors are leading by taking action to curb the spread of the virus.

In the likely continuing absence of economic support legislation from Washington, lit would make sense for governors to petition the Federal Reserve for more low- or no-interest loans from the Federal Reserve system to pay for expanded unemployment benefits to workers & support loans to small businesses. These loans could then be paid back when/if more economic support legislation is passed in Washington.

Tue, 11/17/2020 - 9:50am

The most important piece of info in this entire interview is that a federal remedy is ready and waiting, having been passed by the House, but is being blocked by Senate Republicans. Scream at Mitch McConnell, not the state health officials who are trying to save your families. It sucks, but it also sucks when people go bankrupt because of medical bills, through no fault of their own. Yet I’m betting many of the people enraged about a 3-week pause of their businesses and demanding support are the same ones who think universal healthcare is godless communism.

TL Mischler
Tue, 11/17/2020 - 9:55am

We cannot stop the spread of this virus by wishful thinking, OR by voluntary compliance with common sense guidelines. Voluntary compliance doesn't work with speed limits, seat belt use, and a host of other life & death matters. We must have a central policy, and it's a safe bet that when there are restrictions involved, there is no such thing as a policy everyone is happy with.

At the same time, business owners and employees have a very legitimate concern. The solution is not to rescind the rules - that's based on some fantasy that it won't have a deleterious effect on the spread of this virus. The solution is to provide financial support for the businesses, restaurants, AND state & local governments who are trying to help.

That package of financial support was passed months ago by the House of Representatives, and has been languishing on the desk of the Senate Majority Leader ever since. Meanwhile, Senators have done their best to convince us all to accept 3 cents on the dollar as a substitute for genuine aid. That is where the problems lie.

I'm fairly certain Mr. Ellis & his constituents would be fine with the closings if their financial losses were mitigated by the US government; such a solution would do double duty by curbing the spread of Covid-19 and preventing personal and business financial catastrophe. Now is not the time to complain about the budget deficit - we can pay that down in flush times, not in times of crisis.

I recommend Mr. Ellis join the rest of us in supporting the HEROES act passed by the House and languishing on Mr. McConnell's desk.

Tue, 11/17/2020 - 9:44pm


I agree, mostly.

The problem? These people all think that this is how Government takes control of you, and also?

When has anyone in Government raised taxes to pay off the debt? Liberals do it.....but only after a recession..........and then Publicans lower taxes during times of flush times.

And .................the cycle continues......

Michigan resident
Tue, 11/17/2020 - 11:18am


Tue, 11/17/2020 - 1:01pm

Do you honestly believe Whitmers goal is to destroy Mi. economy so she can blame the Republicans. Get a grip. Now Trump on the other hand wants to leave Biden with the biggest pile of cramp to deal with. Have a nice all you Trump lovers.

Tue, 11/17/2020 - 1:36pm

How can this be happening? None of the Gov's restrictions ever came off even though she lost in court. She just waved he hand and her illegal orders became other executive branch dept orders and the legislature gave up suing her. So how is it she can blame not following her orders for being the cause of any of this? Maybe believing she can affect the virrus is like believing she can affect the rotation of the earth around the sun?

Tue, 11/17/2020 - 3:30pm

I'm just a small neighborhood business and I will not be abiding by any of this. Try to close me down. I dare you.

Tue, 11/17/2020 - 3:36pm

I'm done supporting small businesses. I will no longer support spineless businesses that don't stand up to your highness.

I will gladly give my money to the businesses that ignore the order. They obviously want my money and I'm glad to give it to them since you don't want my money.
Oh well. Your loss.

Deborah A. Juriga
Tue, 11/17/2020 - 4:21pm

Certainly the restaurants are taking a hit. How about doing an article on gig workers and the huge industry that encompasses them. These are artists, musicians, technicians, event planners, designers, lighting and sound specialists, etc. etc. who took a hit from the very beginning and continue to do so. Many have lost their jobs. The industry cannot come back until a vaccine is on the scene and fully distributed.

Deborah A. Juriga
Tue, 11/17/2020 - 4:21pm

Certainly the restaurants are taking a hit. How about doing an article on gig workers and the huge industry that encompasses them. These are artists, musicians, technicians, event planners, designers, lighting and sound specialists, etc. etc. who took a hit from the very beginning and continue to do so. Many have lost their jobs. The industry cannot come back until a vaccine is on the scene and fully distributed.

Fred Torreano
Tue, 11/17/2020 - 4:33pm

To keep this civil, I am of the opinion that most of this could have been avoided had our elected governor NOT started the education system in September when this pandemic was seemingly under control. So now, after virtually every school district has had to revert to virtual learning at some point, she shuts us down again. Does anyone in Lansing think more than 1 day ahead.

Criminal, Both ...
Tue, 11/17/2020 - 4:53pm

Never would I have believed that we'd have lock downs supported by one side and blatant disregard to common sense health practices by the other. Anyone who defends either political party is the problem. WE should be standing up for commonsense. Remind me how 98% of the population voted for a Republican or a Democrat? 98% percent of this country is made up of crazies. You're likely one of them.

Tue, 11/17/2020 - 6:38pm

I understand the governor's position, but she has to know that this shutdown will mean permanent closures for some businesses. Not that she has a choice.

I just hope that once a COVID vaccine is lowering the case load, the gov and health department will encourage people to visit bars and restaurants without telling them to "avoid talking" and making them feel guilty for going out and supporting a favorite establishment.

Tue, 11/17/2020 - 11:05pm

All this is doing is delaying the inevitable...again, and at what cost?!! The bottom line is we all need to get exposed do we can simply work through the virus. The way we are going about it means the financial costs will continue to ruin people. There is a .2% mortality rate, get over it!

Wed, 11/18/2020 - 1:57pm

Is that your version of condolences for anyone who has died? Hospitals aren't really equipped to just let it tear through.

Wed, 11/18/2020 - 8:59am


Wed, 11/18/2020 - 9:42am

Scott Ellis: Nothing to worry about. Just eat, drink and be merry!

Dr. Peter Hotez: ‘We’re going to move towards 2,000 deaths a day … Within a few weeks, COVID-19 will be the single leading cause of death on a daily basis in the United States.’

Wed, 11/18/2020 - 10:13am

Shame on the legislature for spending almost 2 billion dollars in lame duck sessions on frivolous things. Would have come in handy helping out in the crisis we find ourselves in, that wouldn't solve all the problems but it would help. Stop all nonsense start doing the right thing!

Geoffrey Owen
Thu, 11/19/2020 - 11:16pm

It is scary enough going for groceries. In spite of the signs, people are not wearing masks. I have eaten inside in a restaurant three times since March. Once by myself and twice with my wife. A group of about 12-15 were in the same room and it was loud talking. I am able to cook for myself so I'll wait until whenever. I feel bad for the industry but we must protect the health of our people. Bars are especially bad. There is no distancing and after two drinks there is no caution.