Indoor service at bars in most of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula must close starting at 11 p.m. Wednesday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced just hours before the deadline.
Whitmer’s latest emergency order comes as the rate of new coronavirus cases increases across the state, significantly spiking in areas like Lansing, Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo.
After the economy began reopening, cases have increased to a seven-day average this week of 311 following steady declines.
“Following recent outbreaks tied to bars, I am taking this action today to slow the spread of the virus and keep people safe,” Whitmer said in a statement. “If we want to be in a strong position to reopen schools for in-person classroom instruction this fall, then we need to take aggressive action right now to ensure we don’t wipe out all the progress we have made.”
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Whitmer signed the order shortly after she had signed a series of bills that would allow bars and restaurants to sell cocktails to-go and to allow local governments to designate social districts where people could drink outside.
Bars are allowed to continue outdoor service, but must require people to wear masks until they’re seated and can only serve people at tables rather than at a bar top. All “common areas” used for dancing or other mingling must close. Bars that are open for outdoor service can allow customers to go inside to use the bathroom.
Restaurants that make more than 70 percent of their earnings through alcohol sales — traditional bars, nightclubs and strip clubs included — are required to cease indoor sales under the order.
Most breweries, distilleries and vineyards will likely be able to stay open for indoor service under these rules, Whitmer said.
The order does not apply to Regions 6 and 8 of the economic reopening plan, which includes the entire Upper Peninsula and most counties in northern Michigan.
Justin Winslow, CEO of the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association, said in a statement that the order is “largely a stay of execution for the restaurant industry,” given the more stringent measures put in place in other states. The state’s $19 billion restaurant industry lost an estimated lost $1 billion in sales in April, and at least half of its workforce is unemployed.
Florida, Texas, Arizona and Colorado closed bars in the past week. Some governors are looking at regional closures, such as a bar closure in Los Angeles County, Miami’s ban on late-night dining and tightened capacity restrictions on bars, restaurants and public gatherings in Madison, Wisconsin.
“We operate in uncertain times, with almost inconceivable challenges that shift by the day and so it is important to remember that the vast majority of operators are honest brokers doing the very best they can to keep people safe, happy and nourished,” Winslow said.
Over the past week, every region in Michigan has seen an uptick in new cases, according to the state, with daily case counts now exceeding 20 cases per million in the Grand Rapids, Lansing and Kalamazoo regions.
Many cases are younger people, which also is the population in Michigan with the fastest growing number of coronavirus cases.
Among the state’s cases since June 5, 31 percent are under age 29. Before June 5, that age group accounted for 16 percent of cases.
Indoor bars are often crowded, poorly ventilated and encourage mingling, which can make it easier for coronavirus to spread between people, Whitmer’s office said in the statement announcing the order.
They also are often noisy, which can cause people to speak louder and project droplets, and alcohol lowers inhibitions and compliance with rules.
The move comes after 100-plus cases of COVID-19 were tracked to an East Lansing bar in late June. The outbreak at Harper’s Restaurant and Brewpub continues to be tracked by the Ingham County Health Department, officials said, which traced the spread to at least 13 counties. Not counted in that tally is a second outbreak tied to the bar that is spreading in Wayne County after a Grosse Pointe-area house party.
Whitmer’s closure of bars marks the first reversal of a loosened restriction — a practice Whitmer has long pledged could happen if there’s a resurgence in cases.
Cases are increasing across the state of bars announcing that they’ll close because a worker has the virus: The BOB in Grand Rapids, Hopcat in Kalamazoo, Fifth Avenue in Royal Oak and Lansing Brewery are among them.
The bar closure amid concerns about COVID-19 outbreaks follows waves of conflict about mask-wearing in both bars and restaurants.
Scott Ellis, executive director of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association, said customer rudeness is a top concern among his members.
At the center of that hostility is masks. “We just need the public to help us out,” he told Bridge this week. “We understand that some people can’t wear masks … but it’s become political, and we wish it hadn’t.”
Mexican Fiesta in Dearborn Heights closed its dining room this week after staff was “disrespected and treated rudely,” according to its Facebook post, as some customers refused to wear a mask - and were not allowed to enter the restaurant.
“This has been a tough situation for all of us,” owner Sam Alvarado told Bridge. “We’re working really hard to provide quality food and service, but we’ve got to do it in a safe way.”
Halo Burger in Flint had a similar experience, said Olivia Ross, director of marketing. The seven-restaurant chain also closed its dining rooms this week.
Customers not wearing masks were a problem. One took a mask off and leaned around a Plexiglass barrier to order. Disregard for other social distancing measures left staff feeling vulnerable, and managers also had to consider the effect on patrons.
“People were still blatantly sitting on tables that said, ‘Don’t sit here,’” Ross said. “People just don’t want to follow that direction.”
Meanwhile, some service workers wanted the bar shutdown and hope that sit-down service in restaurants will be next. They said they didn’t feel safe at work.
“I have no doubts we will be shutting down again,” said Gabi Bussell, founder of Service Industry Workers of the Ann Arbor Area, on Tuesday. “It’s going to be a matter of whether those in power do that now or later.”
Bussell, who worked at Arbor Brewing Company until it closed this spring, started the Service Industry Workers group on Facebook on March 15 as she and others employed in bars and restaurants in the Ann Arbor area.
Since then, the group has provided a forum for them to discuss work situations, including risks they face on the job.
“A lot are following safety protocols,” Bussell said of establishments. “The big issue has been customers.
“The problem is, the majority of people who are out and about right now are comfortable doing so because they don’t view the virus as a serious threat.”
On June 5, as Whitmer announced that Michigan bars and restaurants could reopen at 50 percent capacity, Bussell launched a petition asking that they remain closed to dine-in service.
“We believe that reopening now is way too soon,” it said. The reasons include the health risks facing a group of workers who often do not have health insurance.
“(B)ars and restaurants are regarded by infectious disease experts as high-risk establishments during the pandemic for the following reasons: 1) Customers will not be able to wear masks while eating or drinking, 2) Those under the influence of alcohol are less likely to follow proper guidelines, and 3) Bar culture promotes crowding and mingling amongst customers,” according to the petition, which was signed by 1,300 people and submitted to Washtenaw County and state officials.
Sen. Mallory McMorrow, D-Royal Oak, served on the governor’s reopening task force. She said she learned how many of the state’s bars and restaurants are small, family owned businesses with limited cash flow.
“Coming out of the shutdown, they’re looking at 12-18 months [with reduced revenue,]” she said. “They say they can’t survive a second shutdown. They just can’t.”
While she describes Harper’s as “an extreme case,” she’s also watching the emerging news of three infections among customers at Fifth Avenue in Royal Oak.
“How do we get the message out that we flattened the curve, but we didn’t get rid of COVID?” she said.
McMorrow said she spent Tuesday talking to leaders in Oakland County communities. The lack of masks was a concern; so was enforcement. Capacity limits can be enforced by police, she said, but social distancing won’t be.
She encouraged the state to avoid a blanket shutdown.
Speaking to Bridge earlier this week, Winslow of the restaurant trade group said the industry needs “good actors” to enforce social distancing and masks.
“The alternate reality is much worse for them if they’re not insisting on mask wearing,” he said.
Whitmer made a similar point.
“If we open up our economy too quickly, the efforts of the last three months will be for nothing and we will have to go through this pain all over again and put our economy, health and medical system at risk. Nobody wants to move backward,” she said.