Whitmer shuts down indoor dining despite few outbreaks from restaurants

Whitmer shuts down indoor dining despite few outbreaks from restaurants

A new order from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services hits restaurants by closing in-person dining. But restaurants accounted for roughly 4% of total outbreaks statewide, according to the state’s most recent contact tracing data.

Amid rising COVID-19 cases, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced a new stay-at-home order from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, or MDHHS – shutting down indoor dining for three weeks, starting Nov. 18.

The order halts in-person dining at bars and restaurants, as well as in-person learning at high schools and colleges. Movie theaters, casinos, ice skating rinks and workplaces where work can be done from home, among other gathering places, are also subject to this order.

Small outdoor gatherings will be limited to 25 people, but preschool through 8th grade in-person learning, retail shops, gyms, hair salons and funerals – also limited to 25 people – will continue to stay open and operational.

Many restaurant and bar owners are in “shock and despair” at the new order. “We’re wearing masks. We’re socially distanced. We’re at 50 percent capacity… doing just enough to survive and keep people employed,” said Scott Ellis, CEO of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association. “Our industry has been devastated and this is just another nail in the coffin for many businesses.”

Restaurants and bars feel they are being treated unfairly under the new order, singled out despite already taking on myriad precautions and restrictions to continue to operate safely. Meanwhile, other businesses, like gyms and retail shops, are allowed to stay open.

The Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association, or MRLA, even attempted to work with the state health department in crafting new restrictions, offering to accept a lower capacity limit of 25% and add a 10 p.m. curfew.

In response to the order, Michigan restaurants and hospitality groups joined forces Nov. 17 to file a lawsuit against the indoor dining ban, seeking an emergency injunction to halt its implementation. The lawsuit was filed jointly by the MRLA, Detroit-based Heirloom Hospitality Group, LLC and Hudsonville-based Suburban Inns.

According to Michigan contact tracing data, restaurants accounted for roughly 4% of total outbreaks statewide. “This industry can’t continue to be scapegoated in a way that is not supported by the data,” said Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the MRLA.

“A lot of people believe this is going to be substantially longer than three weeks … Six to eight is what they’re preparing for, maybe longer,” he added.

Heirloom Hospitality president Jeremy Sasson, a party to the lawsuit, warned of the devastating economic consequences the new heavy-handed restrictions will have on the industry. “Now, when there is no parachute, there is no support system … we are now being asked to lay down and play dead for as long as it may need to be.”

Both Ellis and Winslow believe the new round of restrictions could mean that as many as 40% restaurants and bars may close permanently – many of who were already on the edge following the spring lock down.

Sasson’s own payroll has dwindled to only seven employees today, from 350 before the pandemic, he told the Detroit News. “I don’t have answers for them as to how they’re going to feed their families, how they’re going to support themselves and pay their bills.”

Meanwhile, in a press conference announcing the order Nov. 15, Whitmer also warned Michiganders against gathering with family for Thanksgiving. “If you are considering spending Thanksgiving with people outside of your household, I urge you to reconsider,” Whitmer said.

“As hard as it is not seeing them this Thanksgiving, imagine how much harder it would be if you weren’t able to see them for a future holiday ever again,” Whitmer added

The second statewide stay-at-home order drew criticism from state lawmakers, who say the governor did not seek their advice or input beforehand. “We are disappointed that Gov. Whitmer chose to go it alone, again,” said Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake.

The Michigan Supreme Court declared Whitmer’s extension of emergency powers unconstitutional Oct. 2. The court ruled Whitmer could not continue to declare new disasters to extend her emergency executive powers beyond the 28-day limit set by the Emergency Management Act of 1976 – and would instead need to work with the Michigan Legislature on new restrictions and extensions.

In place of executive orders, however, Whitmer has turned to epidemic orders from the MDHHS to take action on COVID-19 – instead of working with the state legislature on public health measures.

A second indoor dining ban will almost certainly result widespread, permanent closures and job losses across the industry. Rather than continuing to impose heavy-handed restrictions through agency rulemaking eight months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Whitmer should collaborate with the small business community and other stakeholders on measures that allow them to continue earning a livelihood while maintaining public health precautions.

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