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Senate Republicans: Use clear metrics to guide restaurant COVID closings

waiters at restaurant
Michigan Republicans want to use test positivity rates to establish the indoor dining capacity of a restaurant or a venue. (Image by Pixabay)

The Michigan Senate passed a bill on Thursday that would require the state to use clearer perimeters to open and close restaurants amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Following a year of complaints from Republicans that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s handling of emergency orders is capricious, the measure is the GOP’s first plan to resolve tensions among restaurant owners about health restrictions.

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Sen. Jon Bumstead, R-Newaygo, said Thursday the bill would help restaurants and events centers have a clearer sense of regulations and metrics as COVID-19 cases change.

“Restaurants and events centers are begging for a lifeline to survive,” Bumstead said. “They are not asking for handouts or special treatment, they are asking to know what the rules of the game are so they can put forth a plan for their customers.”

The Democratic governor has said she uses science and case trends to guide her administration’s decisions about business restrictions, but she’s been reluctant to set specific metrics, saying officials need to be “nimble” during a pandemic.

The Republican plan comes as coronavirus cases soar throughout Michigan, where weekly cases have more than tripled to more than 19,000 from just over 6,000 in February.

Sen. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, noted the legislation doesn’t mandate contact tracing or the use of masks indoors (even though existing rules would still require them.) 

“There's been an attempt one by one to dismantle these orders that have kept us safe during this pandemic,” Moss told Bridge Michigan.

“Short of putting a mask mandate into this order, (the Republican bill) is a clear demonstration that they don't support a mask mandate and would dismantle that order if they could."

Spokespeople for Whitmer did not return multiple messages seeking comment.

The Republican plan would base restaurant indoor dining capacity on positivity rates, barring any restrictions if rates are lower than 3 percent for seven straight days. 

Restrictions would gradually increase as positivity rates increase — and indoor dining would be closed altogether if rates hit 20 percent for 14 straight days. 

As of Thursday, Michigan’s seven-day rate of positive tests was 9.8 percent. Under the bill, dining rooms would be limited to 50 percent capacity if positivity rates remained from 7 percent to 10 percent for seven consecutive days. 

That’s the same statewide restriction currently in place. 

The Republican proposal comes one week after a Holland-based restaurant owner was arrested for operating her restaurant without a license after violating capacity restrictions and not enforcing the mask requirement.

According to the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association, 3,000 of the state’s 17,000 restaurants have closed and more than 200,000 industry workers have lost their jobs since the start of the pandemic.

Republicans crafted the bill with the help of the restaurant group, which released its own reintegration plan this year that also allowed seating capacity to increase as rates fell.

Justin Winslow, president of the restaurant association, said mask mandates were not included in the bill because they are required under existing policy. 

He said some owners had concerns about keeping a record with names and phone numbers of customers for contact tracing.

“There’s still room for improvement of the legislation,” Winslow said.  “But I think we are happy and our members are very happy that someone is taking an effort to put some accountability behind decision making, so we can have better understanding — so we can have better assurances of what happens when.”

Winslow said he hopes the House can pass the measure in a bipartisan manner, or that the governor’s office can engage in “a realistic conversation” to discuss what they don’t like about the proposal. 

Restaurants and event venue owners are not the only ones who have raised objections to the state’s restrictions. 

In a House Oversight Committee hearing Thursday, wedding industry professionals said they continue to suffer economically because of state gathering restrictions. 

"Our businesses have no purposes, and our dreams are slowly dying," said Kim Smith, owner Above & Beyond Catering in Grand Rapids. 

She said her revenues plummeted 93.6 percent in 2020 as couples canceled wedding plans amid the pandemic. 

Under current state orders, no more than 25 people are allowed at indoor weddings, regardless of the size of the venue. 

Up to 300 people are allowed at outdoor weddings, but Smith told legislators the indoor regulations are still leading to cancellations. 

She urged the Whitmer administration to provide a "targeted date" for allowing larger events so wedding professionals can know what to tell clients, rehire staff and "bring happiness, joy and celebration to the people of Michigan who so desperately need it."

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