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Uncertainty plagues Michigan restaurants as indoor dining ban drags on

Melody Baetens Beth LeBlanc   | The Detroit News

Michigan restauranteurs are bracing for an extension of the state's ban on indoor dining as some complain they haven't received enough help from the government.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer hasn't given any public indication as to whether the "pause" on serving customers inside of bars and restaurants will be extended beyond Friday, other than to say declining COVID-19 cases and other metrics could prompt reopenings. But the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association said Tuesday the governor's office is expected to extend the indoor dining ban through Feb. 1. That would give restaurants "time to work with supply chain and figure out staffing," the association said. 

A reopening likely will include capacity limits and curfews, it added.

Michigan joins Pennsylvania, Washington and Illinois as some of the only states in the nation to still have statewide bans on indoor dining, with Pennsylvania set to reopen Saturday. New York City, Washington, D.C., and counties in California and Colorado also maintain indoor dining bans, according to data collected by the National Restaurant Association. 

Michigan restaurant owners are hoping the governor will soon lift a complete ban on indoor dining since the key indicators the state said it would be watching appear to have decreased since the indoor dining ban was put in place in November. State officials, however, have expressed some concerns about a potential post-holiday uptick.

Last week, the rate of COVID-19 tests bringing positive results dropped to 8.9%, a more than five percentage point drop from the week of Nov. 29-Dec. 5, when the rate hit 14.2%. Likewise, hospitalizations tied to the virus are decreasing.

The criteria "are the only bit of structure we have to go by," said Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association. 

"We’ve watched reductions in all three of those. All trend lines would suggest that they should be reopening based on what they said their criteria are.”

The state reported 21,955 new coronavirus cases last week. The total was up from the previous week but well-below the 50,892 cases reported the week of Nov. 15-21, the first week of what was supposed to be a three-week pause on indoor dining. 

Whitmer's administration, which didn't immediately respond Tuesday, has said cases and hospitalizations have decreased due to restrictions put in place in November and continued in some economic sectors through the New Year. 

Michigan ranks 45th in the nation for the number of average daily cases per 100,000 people over the last seven days, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data tracker. Over the last seven days, the state has had on average 34.4 cases per 100,000 per day. 

Michigan ranks 13th in the country for average daily deaths per 100,000 people over the last week, averaging 1.2 deaths per 100,000 people per day, according to the CDC.

Arizona, Rhode Island, California, Oklahoma and Arkansas rank the highest in the country for average daily cases per 100,000 people over the last week, with all of them averaging above 100 cases per 100,000 people a day, according to the CDC. 

Those states have between 33% and 100% capacity limits, with the exception of California where many counties remain closed to indoor dining, according to the National Restaurant Association's Restaurant Law Center.

In Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey has opposed a statewide mask mandate as well as the closing of bars and restaurants. In California, where restrictions are much more stringent, cases are up in part because people are flouting the directives, the Associated Press reported. 

If dining rooms are soon allowed to reopen, it's uncertain what kind of restrictions could be placed on indoor dining — which previously included requiring contact information from diners and not exceeding 50% capacity. The restaurant association said in November it offered to reduce capacity to 25% and put in place a 10 p.m. curfew in order to keep some indoor dining options available.

Prior to the November ban on indoor dining, Michigan restaurants and bars accounted for about 4.3% of the state's total outbreaks, but state officials have said that wasn't an accurate read on restaurants' contribution to the spread of the virus. It is much easier, they argued, to track an outbreak at a school or long-term care facility than it is a restaurant, making outbreak data unreliable.

Hamtramck bar owner Tia Fletcher, who has owned and operated neighborhood watering hole Bumbo's for six years, calls the situation with bars "really contradictory." 

"If (the state) expects people to comply and stay closed, they need to provide help and not in just a handful of grants to be sprinkled here and there," said Fletcher, adding she followed guidelines when she was able to previously open her bar during the pandemic, though she likened enforcing them to "herding cats." 

"I'd watch people who came in acting safe slip into being unsafe, not because they're in any bad way, they're just humans who miss connection," she said. "With alcohol, they started acting the way they always have before March."  

A 25% capacity limit is better than 0%, Winslow said, but he urged the state, if it chooses to pursue that option, to provide benchmarks for reaching 50%, 75% and 100%. 

Restaurants across the state are struggling in a slow month in normal times, Winslow said. Most restaurants are banking on federal stimulus money and the ability of the general public to feel comfortable dining indoors by the late spring, he said. 

"There’s a large segment of their industry building their futures on that possibility," Winslow said. 

The industry also hopes to move higher in the vaccination line because of how long it spent shut down, noting D.C. could vaccinate restaurant workers in early February and New York City in early March. 

"In Michigan, they've been pushed to the back of the line and might receive the vaccine in mid-May if they’re lucky," Winslow said. 

Some business owners say the COVID-19 related regulations are inconsistent. Shopping malls, casinos, bowling alleys and other places are open for business.

"I absolutely feel like we need more information, but I’m also understanding that the situation is fluid and things are changing pretty quickly in regards to the COVID numbers, so I’m trying to be patient," said Stephanie Byrd, owner of Flood's Bar and Grill and the Block restaurant, both in Detroit. 

Byrd last week reopened Flood's for outdoor dining, using an open-air, heated tent that can seat 30-40 guests, socially distanced. This week, she plans to restart carryout at the Block, located on Woodward in Midtown, in case she is allowed to open the dining room in a few days.

“We’re just prepared to pivot depending on which way things go,” she said. "It’s a little difficult because you need time to prepare. So now we’re in a crunch time. Even if (Gov. Whitmer) says go ahead, open at 50%, it’s going to be a mad dash to get things in order, and our friends in the industry — they pretty much feel the same."

If the state allows indoor dining to reopen at only 25%, Byrd says that's not enough, but she'll take it. 

"We’ll change our hours, we’ll have to modify and pivot," Byrd said. "We want to keep people safe. We especially want to keep the Black community safe, which is the bulk of our guests. So that’s at the forefront, but we’ll make it work."

If able to open Saturday at 50% capacity, chef and restaurant owner David Wood has reservations for 70 people in the books at his newly opened fine dining restaurant H20 Seafood in Wyandotte. 

"I tell people, I'm going to put you in the books, but you'll know as soon as I do," he said. "This is all just a waiting game."

Wood says he's opened more than 30 restaurants throughout his career, and the fall debut of H20 Seafood was the best he's had. He's trying to keep that momentum going by altering his menu to serve more carry-out-friendly seafood dishes. 

"We're right on the edge of greatness," he said, adding carry out on New Year's Eve kept him and two employees (down from a staff of 25) as busy as they would have been during a regular year. Still, he thinks restaurants have been treated unfairly in Michigan. 

"How is a bowling alley open and I'm not," he said. "I don't want to talk bad. God bless them, they're open, but it's still not fair." 

He said it would be "rough" to only be able to open his dining room at 25% capacity and is hoping the state allows 50% this week. 

"I want 50% like it was before or a curfew," he said. "How do we transition when we don't know what's going on? They have not been vocal to the restaurant owners. The health department laid out these guidelines, but they did not follow through on what they expect. So everybody's kind of all over the place, there's no official guideline."

The ban on serving guests inside at bars and restaurants that was put in place in November felt much different than the initial March ban. 

It was just ahead of December, a time when some restaurants see their highest sales of the year and employees bank on extra tips ahead of the holidays. The first dining room shutdown occurred during a time when there were more state and federal funds in place to help restaurants and their employees. 

Both Byrd and Fletcher pointed to the long online wait and backlog of entries for the latest round of grants from the state via the Pure Michigan Small Business Relief Initiative. Byrd says she's also hopeful for the next round of PPP loans. 

"It’s beyond stressful at this point," she said. "I feel numb because there’s so much uncertainly regarding the loans, what’s forgiven, and all the other components."

Staff Writer Craig Mauger contributed.