News Story

New State Mandate May Close This Bar For Good

Health department demands contact tracing information for bar, restaurant patrons who test positive for coronavirus

Genesee County bar and restaurant owner Joe Schultz sometimes feels he’s been fighting a long war to keep his business open — a fight against his own state government.

He is still pained that back in 2009, legislators banned smoking in bars, alienating a significant portion of his customer base.

2020 brought COVID-19 to the state, and the governor locked down indoor food and drink service for three months. Now that he is allowed to operate at half capacity — with elaborate and expensive anti-virus protocols — Schultz soldiers on.

As of Monday, Nov. 2, Schultz (and every other bar and restaurant in Michigan) is required to collect the name and contact information of every patron who crosses his threshold. This is to be turned over to public health officials for contact tracing of everyone who may have contacted a person who later comes down with COVID. If a restaurant or bar owner doesn’t collect every patron’s name and phone number, state officials can fine or shut down the establishment (again).

“What am I supposed to do?” Schultz asks. “If they (customers) refuse, I’m not supposed to serve them. I don’t think they blame me. But they know their freedoms are being trampled upon.”

Schultz is convinced his customers won’t like sharing their information as part of their night-out experience. Many will just stay away.

“All I can figure is that (Gov. Gretchen Whitmer) must have had a bad experience at a restaurant at some point. She’s singled out this industry,” he said.

Schultz said he understands the seriousness of the coronavirus. He’s 62 and has had three heart attacks. His wife was infected by the virus and went to the emergency room for treatment.

But the statistics and the state government’s claims about them have been muddled, ambiguous and contradictory, he said.

“I don’t think anyone believes the numbers,” Schultz said. “And what is life if you’re not living it?”

As of Nov. 1, Michigan has reported 197,406 confirmed cases, meaning individuals who have had a positive test. But the head of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said over the summer that reported figures only represent about 10% of the total number of people who have contracted the disease.

This means that as many as two million Michiganders, nearly 20% of the population, may have already contracted the disease and developed some immunity. (There has been no report of someone in Michigan getting COVID-19 twice.) Other researchers suggest the real incidence is six to 24 times the number of confirmed cases.

Schultz entered the hospitality business 15 years ago after a career as a golf pro, jeweler and auto dealer. He sold a Chevrolet dealership in Merrill to purchase what he calls an “old folks restaurant” near Clio and invested a million dollars to create a food and music hangout called Joe’s Garage Sports Pub in the hopes of securing his retirement.

After a few years of hard work, it started to pay off; he had lots of loyal customers and devoted employees.

Then the state government increased the challenge of running a business by banning smoking in bars. Schultz says he started working 60-70 hours a week to stay afloat.

Still, things were going pretty well. In 2019, Joe’s Garage did $13,000 in sales on St. Patrick’s Day. He had a staff of 28 employees. But in 2020, the state shut him down the day before St. Patrick’s Day, and the bar grossed only $1,000.

After the lockdown, Schultz applied for and received a forgivable loan from a federal COVID relief program. He’s managed to retain almost all of his employees. They’re working now but serving significantly fewer customers and devoting much more time to COVID-related requirements that don’t contribute to the bottom line.

“I don’t know how long I can hang on,” Schultz said. “I think I can survive. I hope so. But I keep getting kicked in the teeth by the government.”

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.