By Paula Gardner, Jonathan Oosting
Rosie Gunville looked ahead on Tuesday to the end of the state-ordered “pause” on indoor dining a few days later and placed a food order for her bar. Burger buns, produce, fresh meat and french fries all arrived Wednesday, within hours of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announcing that Michigan’s bars and restaurants must remain closed until at least Feb. 1.
“I have lots of extras,” Gunville said of the supplies that she had hoped to serve to customers at the Long Branch Saloon in Hermansville, about 20 miles southeast of Iron Mountain in the western Upper Peninsula.
Now Gunville, who is buying the bar from her parents, Jeff and Tammy Kiser, said she’s used savings to keep the bar open and support herself, the only employee left.
“I don’t know if I’ll make it,” she said. Among her options, Gunville said, is opening no matter what the state says about the latest expiration date of the indoor dining ban.
“I could say, ‘Screw it’ and open up and fight the battles,” she said. “I’m going to lose everything anyway if I can’t open up soon.”
Michigan’s bar and restaurant industry had hoped to hear on Wednesday that it could reopen on Friday, 58 days after restrictions on indoor dining and other activities were put in place amid a rise in state coronavirus cases and hospitalizations. While some of the restrictions were later lifted — including for movie theaters and bowling alleys — food and beverage service remains banned indoors.
Instead, owners, employees and laid-off workers heard in an announcement from Whitmer that the restrictions were extended until Feb. 1 – and that it’s possible, but not a certainty, that they can reopen on that date. “It’s all very tenuous,” Whitmer said of Michigan’s progress against the virus.
She continued: “It depends on all of us continuing to take this seriously.”
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The state expects any reopening to come with “strong safety measures in place,” Whitmer said. That includes addressing capacity limits, mask requirements and a curfew, and possibly ventilation improvements. However, no details were provided.
The latest decision and lack of certainty is sparking fear and anger in the industry.
“The governor’s continuation of this pause without a plan—now expanding to 75 days—is without parallel in the nation in terms of its unwillingness or inability to provide leadership to a decimated industry and its workforce,” said Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association,
The reaction also was strong among some Republican legislators.
“It’s frustrating that we have an arbitrary date that’s been set for whatever reason and no one really knows why,” said new Michigan House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Clare. “It was the 15th (of January), now it’s the 1st, what is it going to be on the 1st?”
Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, immediately criticized the extension to Feb. 1, saying the administration’s policies have “crippled an entire industry and peripheral supply chain businesses.”
Winslow said the lack of clarity provided by the state over months is stunning.
“There was zero plan shared today and February 1 (as a reopening date) really feels like a maybe,” he told Bridge Michigan. “All of this feels so absurdly vague.”
State officials say bars and restaurants pose unique covid risks because people from multiple households are in close proximity and without masks for sustained periods of time while they’re eating or drinking. The industry adopted social distancing, including operating at reduced capacity and in some cases erecting plastic barriers between diners, when it reopened in June after the first wave of the virus.
Health officials say they’re watching three key coronavirus metrics for reopening after the mid-November dining room closures: the percentage of people in a region testing positive for COVID, overall case rates and hospitalization rates.
Whitmer said Wednesday the “pause is working” enough for in-person exercise classes and non-contact sports to resume.
Yet the numbers still need to be watched closely, in part due to a new, more contagious strain of the virus that’s making its way across the United States.
“Although Michigan saw improvements across all three [health metrics] following the ‘pause’ implemented in mid-November, some numbers have plateaued or begun to increase in recent days,” according to a news release issued immediately after Whitmer’s announcement.
According to the state:
Hospital capacity dedicated to COVID-19 patients has been in a 13-day decline, with current capacity is at 12 percent for beds with COVID-19 patients. It peaked at 19.6 percent on Tuesday, Dec. 4.
Overall case rates are increasing, and are currently at 266 cases per million. It peaked at 740 cases per million on Saturday, Nov. 14 and declined to a low of 239 on Friday, Dec. 25
The positive test rate is plateauing at 9.1 percent after reaching a low of 8.1 percent on Monday, Dec. 28 and increasing up to 10 percent since then.
Whitmer said her administration is “doing all we can to build on the support to make sure our small businesses not only survive the pandemic, but continue to succeed long after it has passed.”
However, bar and restaurant leaders say their industry’s survival goals are more immediate. With an estimated 2,000 establishments already closed, according to the MRLA, many others had looked to the end of the pause as a lifeline. That it now may go beyond the end of January is devastating.
“We have to open February 1,” said Scott Ellis, president and CEO of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association. “We have no choice. We have to open.”
The economic effects of the indoor restaurant ban are still unfolding. The state lost 143,400 leisure and hospitality jobs from November 2019 to November 2020. Some bars and restaurants already are nearing the end of their options, said Andy French, president of the Aubree’s Pizzeria and Grill chain founded in Ypsilanti.
“Everything we’ve worked for is in jeopardy,” French said.
Small businesses are particularly hurt, said French, also chairman of the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association. “They don’t have the resources to sustain the losses.”
Some are paying rent for buildings that sit mostly empty, even if a partial staff is running a carry-out operation or winterized outdoor seating. Property taxes and licensing fees also have to be paid, he added.
By the time word started to circulate on Tuesday that the “pause” appeared likely to be extended to Feb. 1, French already had been reaching out to employees about coming back to work at the end of the week in the eight Aubrees that remain open. Two have closed due to the pandemic.
“I really think it is time that the government has a publicly available, discernable plan to know what reopening looks like,” he said. “We need to get to that point.”
Winslow said that in November, the restaurant association had proposed that the state reduce occupancy to 25 percent and set a 10 p.m. curfew. That was as coronavirus cases were on the upswing, and also as restaurants looked ahead to the holiday months with hopes of maintaining some sales from indoor service during that busy time.
The proposal was offered as an alternative to closing dining rooms. Now, after two months of losses, Ellis and Winslow say that opening at 25 percent capacity may not be fiscally feasible for a struggling restaurateur. They’re concerned that a lower capacity limit is part of the state’s unstated plan, even as coronavirus numbers improve.
Gunville agrees. She’s been selling takeout meals from her bar in the U.P., but “we’re in the middle of nowhere,” she said. “People don’t drive out here to take food home.”
Republicans in the state Legislature have sought to pressure Whitmer to allow restaurants to reopen their dining rooms immediately.
House Appropriations Chair Thomas Albert, R-Lowell, said last week he “cannot envision starting conversations” about allocating new federal aid dollars until Whitmer “shows more willingness to restore the economy and a sense of normalcy.” Senate Appropriations Chair Jim Stamas, R-Midland, said Wednesday he thinks the Legislature should block any gubernatorial appointments by Whitmer until “our economy is safely and fully reopened.”
Whitmer said on Wednesday that she was surprised by that reaction and described it as “unfortunate that there are members of the Legislature who want to resort to threats to open up restaurants. … I’m hopeful they don’t intend to carry these through.”
Then, as their first bill of the new legislative term, Senate Republicans on Wednesday reintroduced a proposal to limit emergency orders issued by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to 28 days unless extended by the state Legislature, designating the measure as a top priority for 2021.
Whitmer vetoed similar legislation on Dec. 30, telling lawmakers “epidemics are not limited to 28 days” and so the state “should not so limit our ability to respond to them.
Winslow said support for the industry extends to Democrats who have been reaching out to him in support.
Meanwhile, the state is moving forward with distributing relief funds to affected businesses that received bipartisan support in late December.
The Michigan Strategic Fund will meet on Thursday to vote on the Small Business Survival Grant program, which will distribute $55 million in amounts up to $20,000. Another $3.5 million will go to event venues that faced long-term closure.
And onetime employee assistance grants of up to $1,650 for restaurant workers will open to applications on Friday. Whitmer said they’d be processed in February and reach the workers in March.