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Editorial: Give restaurants a much-needed lifeline

The Detroit News  |  The Detroit News

Many restaurant owners have been surprised to learn that weeks ago Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the state Health Department quietly extended the tight restrictions on their businesses through the end of March — without any clear metrics to back up the decision. It’s time for the industry and those who appreciate their favorite restaurants to push back hard.

That’s what it takes to get the Whitmer administration’s attention, as evidenced by the change of heart the governor had after facing outrage from parents and school leaders (and a lawsuit) over the ban on high school winter sports. 

Yet at the Feb. 4 announcement allowing sports to continue, Whitmer failed to mention that in the revised “Gatherings and Face Mask Order” she was also extending the 25% capacity limitations and 10 p.m. curfew on restaurants through March 29. This is on top of all the additional measures these businesses must take, from getting contact tracing info from customers to enhanced cleaning and air ventilation. 

The former epidemic order said the restaurant restrictions would lift Feb. 21. Virus numbers have only got better since the original order, so it's hard to understand how the governor justifies extending it.

The hospitality industry has been the hardest hit in Michigan, given the continued shutdowns and restrictions. And numerous restaurants had chosen not to reopen at all for indoor dining, as capacity restrictions didn’t make it financially feasible. 

More: Editorial: Despite some relief, restaurants still in peril

At least 3,000 restaurants have already closed in the past year, and 200,000 workers are without a job. Expect those numbers to grow unless Whitmer changes course right away. 

Michigan remains one of the only states with such strict provisions in place. And of the ones that do, this state is alone in not having a reopening plan, says Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association. 

“We stand alone as a state that has introduced zero plan,” says Winslow, calling this a “tone-deaf approach” for an “industry hanging on by a thread.” 

That's making it extremely difficult for restaurant owners to plan for the future.

Winslow says he was aware of the extension of the restrictions, yet was hopeful with a new Health Department director in place, he’d have better communication with Elizabeth Hertel than he did with Robert Gordon

Hertel has been more open to discussions, Winslow says, but hasn’t expressed a willingness to make any changes. 

What the industry would like is for the state to take into consideration its proposal to allow restaurants to open based on the positivity rate of COVID tests. As of last week, Michigan's positivity rate dropped to 3.6%, the lowest since early October. Under the association’s plan, there would be no limitations if the weekly average is less than 3% for 14 consecutive days.

Brian Calley, president of the Small Business Association of Michigan, agreed this is a good blueprint: “The Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association plan provides a strong, data-driven approach to reopening for some of the hardest-hit industries.”

Whitmer and Hertel must consider this proposal and give restaurants some relief ahead of the current order’s expiration. Or expect many more eateries to shutter permanently.