News Story

Restaurant Association's Reopening Guidelines Look ‘Totally Impractical For Many’

Some, maybe many, ‘aren’t going to make it’

May 29 is the earliest that Michigan’s bars and restaurants can hope to reopen. The establishments have been under a COVID-19 lockdown order since March 16, which has limited their service to pickup and delivery customers.

In anticipation of reopening, a statewide trade group has created a lengthy “Roadmap to Reopening,” designed to provide restaurateurs and bar owners with guidance on how to operate under post-lockdown regulations.

Many locally owned restaurants, though, may view the road map as directions for staying closed a very long time, maybe forever.

The Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association says the document is based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Food and Drug Administration, plus executive orders from Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. It addresses sanitization protocols, mandates for personal protective equipment and requirements to notify vendors who come in contact with a COVID-19 patient, among other topics.

Parts of the document are ambiguous but can be read as requiring incoming guests to answer health-related questions that include: “Do you have ... diarrhea (excluding diarrhea due to a known medical reason other than COVID-19)?”

“If you answered YES to any of the questions,” the document suggests restaurant staff say to possibly ill customers, “please call and we will prepare a takeout meal for you while you wait in your car.”

Charlie Owens, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said the likelihood of many small, family-owned restaurants being able to comply with a panoply of new health mandates is close to zero. He said it is “clear that the people who write this stuff (by which he meant federal and state regulators) have no idea what a small business has to go through to do these things. It is totally impractical for many of them.”

Tommy Brann, a Republican lawmaker from the west Michigan city of Wyoming who has worked at his family’s steakhouses for nearly a half century, said Friday the new health guidelines may be temporarily workable. “The biggest thing we’ll have to overcome is making customers feel safe,” Brann said.

But, he said, it’s a bit like “we’re a patient in the ICU and they want to move us to another ward in the ICU.”

“The restaurant business is the toughest business in the world. We’ve gone from takeout being 6-8% of the business to being 100%,” he added. “We can’t survive on that. No matter what happens, sadly some of my friends (in the industry) aren’t going to make it.”

Brann said operating with new mandates — especially those that require social distancing and thereby significantly limit restaurant occupancy and revenue - need to be temporary. “No more than a few weeks,” he said.

The trade group said that 249,000 restaurant employees have been furloughed or laid off since the pandemic-related shutdown began, and 55% of all restaurants are temporarily or permanently closed.

The group’s executive director, Justin Winslow, said in a statement that the document offers “a thoughtful and thorough guidance.”

“Michigan restaurants have been decimated since their forced closure. Those that remain in business stand ready to meet or exceed the challenging, but necessary, new standard procedures that will keep their guests and team members safe.”

Winslow did seem to acknowledge that reopening under the guidelines was suboptimal, and urged the governor to end the shutdown May 29.

“These restaurateurs are Michiganders who need to be afforded that opportunity before it is too late,” he said.