Despite some relief, restaurants still in peril

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has granted restaurants the option to operate with limited indoor dining starting Tuesday, after months of having to survive on takeout and outdoor seating during a Michigan winter. Yet the damage thousands of restaurants have endured is likely to be lasting.

The state restaurant association estimates 3,000 restaurants have closed and contends that the industry employs 200,000 fewer people than it did last year as Whitmer’s “pause” on indoor dining meant establishments couldn’t take in holiday revenue.

Michigan has also been an outlier for these blanket restrictions — only Washington state has a similar statewide ban on indoor dining — which has encouraged Michigan residents who live close enough to the border to flock to neighboring states that have more relaxed restrictions.

The latest epidemic order may not really help restaurants that much, either. They must limit operations to 25% capacity with a maximum of 100 people and close by 10 p.m.

It also brings up logistical problems for restaurants, and may force them to stay closed until they can seat more guests, says Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association.

“What we’re experiencing anecdotally is that many of our members are choosing not to open,” Winslow says. “We’re not sure how widespread the reopening will be.”

Winslow notes the overhead of starting to seat patrons again might not be worth the risk because of the reduced capacity. And restaurant owners may be reluctant to invest in a reopening that could be short-lived, should case rates spike again.

“To get back open, you’re going to have to spend a considerable amount of time to re-sanitize everything and money to restock without a clear sense of demand,” he says.

Restaurateurs and bar owners are certainly questioning why the governor instated the 10 p.m. curfew for indoor dining as they are looking to serve patrons whenever possible to make up for lost revenue due to lower capacity restrictions.

Restaurants watched as mall and hospital cafeterias could reopen for indoor dining and other indoor leisure activities like bowling, theaters and stadium events started welcoming customers, with restrictions.

Michigan should consider putting restaurant workers into the vaccine schedule after the highest-need groups have received their two doses. It would be a way to give the public confidence to go out to eat and keep workers from contracting the virus and spreading it around.

Business owners who have taken extra safety measures to comply with the “MI COVID-19 Safer Dining Program” should be able to seat more people than 25% capacity.

Given the rocky past year for the industry combined with the continued restrictions, the latest “reopening” next month may not be much of an opening at all.

— Detroit News


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