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Michigan bars, restaurants can reopen Feb. 1 with restrictions, state says

Michigan’s coronavirus case rate has improved dramatically since indoor dining in restaurants was banned in November. (Shutterstock)

Jan. 28, 2021: Michigan restaurants still likely to struggle after reopening amid COVID

Michigan officials say bars and restaurants can resume indoor dining on Feb. 1, ending nearly two months of a “pause” that forced thousands out of work and threatened to permanently shutter thousands of businesses.

 

A sustained decrease in new coronavirus cases and positive rates is ending the ban on indoor dining, but the state will announce restrictions on service on Friday, said Robert Gordon, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

“While restaurants will be reopening on that day, there will continue to be risk associated with indoor dining,” Gordon said during a conference call with reporters.

The news was welcomed by the restaurant industry, whose owners had feared the ban would be extended beyond Feb. 1.

“All of us, 100 percent of us, want to get back [to business,]” said Scott Ellis, president at CEO of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association. “Our concerns are what the restrictions will be and will they be worthwhile and doable.”

He said his members expect to learn more about other restrictions — which could include reduced capacity or a curfew — in the next few days

Restaurants employed some 447,000 in Michigan and generated $18 billion in revenue in 2018, the most recent year available, while employing 9 percent of the state’s workers and generating 3 percent of its payroll.

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Gordon ordered a three-week ban on indoor dining on Nov. 18 to help combat rising numbers of coronavirus cases as a second wave of COVID-19 swept into Michigan. That order was extended twice.

 

Even with the pause, December became the second-deadliest month of the pandemic, leaving more than 3,200 dead as state hospitals were near capacity.

Scientists had estimated that, without the restrictions, daily deaths would reach 250 in December, state epidemiologist Sarah Lyon-Callo said.

Instead, daily deaths peaked at 150, a rate that approached the worst of the pandemic that started in March, while the COVID-19 mortality rate has fallen four consecutive weeks, Lyon-Callo said.

Despite fears of a holiday spike, coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and positive tests have improved dramatically since December — and Michigan now has one of the lowest case rates in the country.

Hospitalizations and positive test rates also have improved. COVID-19 hospitalizations are now half of where they were at the Dec. 1 peak, Lyon-Callo said.

“The state has gained tremendously because of the pause,” Gordon said.

Gordon and the Whitmer administration targeted the indoor restaurant industry for restrictions because of how the coronavirus is spread, through close-contact between people who are indoors, often with people from multiple households.

But the November dining ban, which also included restrictions on schools and other activities, hit the industry particularly hard as it was struggling to recover from earlier shutdowns.

Nearly 1 in 6 of the state’s 17,000 restaurants closed permanently during the pandemic, according to estimates from the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association trade group.

Michigan is one of 10 states with full or partial shutdowns of indoor dining, but its unemployment rate, 6.9 percent, is higher than neighboring states including Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin, which allow indoor dining and whose unemployment rates are below 6 percent. 

Illinois also has a ban on indoor dining; its unemployment rate is also 6.9 percent.

Michigan’s seven-day average of new daily cases per 100,000 is 28; Wisconsin is at 44, Indiana is 56 and Ohio is more than double at 61 cases per 100,000. Illinois is at 45 cases per day per 100,000.

Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association, agreed a plan to reopen restaurants is good news but said operators need to know criteria for doing so soon to “make definitive decisions on staffing and inventory.”

“We’re excited. It’s about time,” agreed Kurt Busard, chief operating officer of Downtown Restaurants Investments, which operates six establishments in Bay City and Midland. 

He and others are anxious to hear details from state health officials about restrictions. If the state allows restaurants to open at only 25 percent of capacity, for instance, that may not be enough of a revenue boost for some restaurants, Busard said.

More restrictions also would mean that fewer workers would return to their jobs. The leisure and hospitality industry had 33 percent fewer jobs in November than in the same month in 2019, as 143,000 workers remained laid off, according to state statistics.

“We need the state to provide metrics to tell us what getting back to 100 percent occupancy will look like,” said Andy French, owner of the Ypsilanti-based Aubree’s Pizzeria and Grill chain.

Busard said the pandemic forced restaurants to get creative, including finding new ways to add to outdoor seating. 

While the state health data show improvement in virus transmission, the next step for restaurants will be “to build back that confidence in our consumers,” Busard said.

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