Much like the dining igloos popularized by the pandemic, business reopening plans in different states range from transparent to opaque.
In Michigan, the process involves watching Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s press conferences and praying for good news.
That’s irksome to many business owners who are itching for Michigan to get back to normal. As Michigan moves slower on reopenings than other states, critics beg Whitmer to set benchmarks for what COVID-19 numbers Michigan must hit to get back to business in each industry.
Restaurants and high school contact sports have been the latest battlegrounds in the partisan reopening fight.
A handful of states prohibited indoor dining this fall and winter due to a second wave of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths. But only two states still have the dine-in ban in place – according to lists maintained by the New York Times and restaurant reservation website Open Table: Washington and Michigan.
Michigan will allow indoor dining statewide starting Feb. 1 at 25% capacity with a 10 p.m. curfew. State leaders cite a general downward trend in cases, hospitalizations and percent positivity as reasons for reopening.
In Washington, the reopening plan is black and white. The state is divided into eight regions, each of which move to less restrictive phases whenever they hit four benchmarks:
- Number of new cases being down 10% over two weeks, compared to the previous two weeks.
- Number of hospital admissions being down 10% over two weeks, compared to the previous two weeks.
- Hospital Intensive Care Units being less than 90% full.
- Having less than 10% of tests come back positive.
No region in Washington has met all four metrics yet, meaning indoor dining remains closed. But business owners and consumers in the state know what goals to hit if they want indoor dining and other businesses to reopen.
Washington also has data points showing what numbers would move the state backward a phase and reclose certain industries. Michigan doesn’t have closing goalposts like these, either.
“We kind of just need to know what the plan is,” said Sarah Hagan, vice chairperson for the Northern Michigan Chamber Alliance.
The alliance of chambers is demanding a “comprehensive plan” for what numbers Michigan needs to hit to lighten restaurant capacity restrictions and eliminate the 10 p.m. curfew. Some business owners say they can’t make money with a 25% capacity limit and won’t open until a softer limit is set.
Restaurant owners are frustrated with being closed – and what they see as arbitrary opening and closing decisions make the situation tougher.
Setting clear statistical targets “also puts some ownership into consumers, too – knowing what percentages mean what and, if they want to start going to their favorite restaurant, they need to be acting smartly in their other interactions,” Hagan said.
Michigan’s latest orders have come on a statewide basis – but could return to a regional basis if there are big discrepancies in data between areas of the state, said Lynn Sutfin, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman.
‘No discernable plan’
A year ago, Restaurant Partners Management had 20 restaurants and 700 employees in west Michigan, President Jeff Lobdell said. The business includes places like Beltline Bar in Grand Rapids and Apache Trout Grill in Traverse City.
Now, the restaurant group has 12 restaurants open for takeout, five locations temporarily closed and three others permanently closed. All but 35 employees are laid off.
“What’s happening now is a huge travesty to the hospitality industry and the hospitality workers of the state of Michigan,” Lobdell said.
Michigan had about 218,000 leisure and hospitality workers in December 2020. That’s nearly 50% fewer jobs than the 417,000 positions the industry had 12 months earlier.
State grants are a temporary help to some restaurants – like the $55 million program approved by the Legislature to provide up to $20,000 in aid per business. But Lobdell said most of his restaurants are losing $5,000 to $10,000 each week, right now.
With the state holding tight to its discretionary powers of when to open and close industries, there’s no telling if the dine-in ban could return after Feb. 1.
“Michigan has no discernable plan as to how we will operate going forward,” Lobdell said. “We’re all in the dark. It’s a big mystery. The communication has been very poor.”
Related: Michigan loses estimated 60,000 leisure, hospitality jobs in December
The call for clear reopening benchmarks is nothing new. The Legislature has repeatedly asked the Whitmer administration and she’s explained her rationale “many, many times,” she said.
“I understand the desire to (have reopening benchmarks), because people want to know. I get that. I feel the same way,” Whitmer said. “The problem with that, though, is that every state that’s done that has had to change them along the way or has had to acknowledge that the context matters. That’s why we’ve been reticent to adopt that.”
The data must be analyzed with context in mind, instead of automatically triggering openings and closings, she said.
“The fidelity to a specific number and percentage is problematic,” Whitmer said. “Metrics matter, absolutely. We are using metrics … But the context does as well. And I think that’s the hardest thing to wrap your head around.”
But “fidelity to numbers” is what Michiganders were promised, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said Thursday.
“Today, after 10 months, the governor finally came clean,” Shirkey said. “We now know the truth. The lives and livelihoods of thousands of Michiganders hang in the balance not based on science and data, but whether it’s their turn to be announced at a press conference. It’s past time this behavior ends.”
Numbers are necessary, but don’t tell the full story, state leaders argue.
If a chunk of a community’s COVID cases are coming from one employer or residence, that has different implications than if there’s wide community spread, Whitmer said.
“These metrics cannot be understood by themselves. They interact with each other and have to be looked at together,” Sutfin said. “For example, a higher positivity during a time of decreased testing would indicate that we are probably missing cases.”
New COVID-19 variants also play a role, Sutfin said. Case numbers could look low, but if many new cases are from a more-contagious strain of the virus, it could signal a new surge on the way.
“You might need to react to case increases more quickly and might need to get cases lower than we would have thought previously,” Sutfin said.
The MDHHS director – who is appointed by the governor – has the power under Michigan law to “prohibit the gathering of people” during an epidemic and shut down industries via health order. Director Robert Gordon resigned last week, the same day Michigan leaders announced the dine-in ban would end. Whitmer named Elizabeth Hertel, who had been serving as senior deputy director, his replacement.
By holding onto the power to open and close businesses – instead of subjecting it solely to the data – state leaders get flexibility.
But such power also welcomes scrutiny and persuasion attempts from lobbying groups.
Did the dine-in ban work?
Business leaders and Whitmer have been in a tug-of-war on reopening benchmarks since the pandemic started.
The other point of contention: Whether shutting down a given industry or activity has any positive impact in the first place.
“The restaurant industry has been demonized – like we are less safe than those other places,” Lobdell, the restaurant president, said. “I don’t think they can definitively say who’s at fault and who’s not at fault.”
State leaders disagree. The biggest issue with restaurants is that people can’t wear masks while eating and drinking.
They point to studies, like one that shows COVID-positive people are twice as likely to have visited a restaurant in the previous two weeks compared to people who tested negative. Or another that says crowded indoor spaces like restaurants, cafes and gyms accounted for eight in 10 COVID-19 infections in the early days of the pandemic.
Related: 4 studies Michigan used to explain COVID-19 spread in restaurants
In Michigan, all COVID metrics have dropped substantially since restaurants closed inside on Nov. 18. It’s a Catch-22 for restaurants – which were rooting for lower numbers so they could reopen, but didn’t want to be seen as a reason for COVID-19 spread.
Washington and Michigan – the only two states without indoor dining – rank 44th and 46th, respectively, in the U.S. for most new COVID-19 cases per capita.
There were 65 active COVID-19 outbreaks tied to restaurants and bars in Michigan when the dine-in ban started. Now, there are seven.
“The pause has worked,” Whitmer said in a news release last week. “The efforts we have made together to protect our families, frontline workers and hospitals have dramatically reduced cases and we have saved lives.”
A University of Michigan study estimates the “pause” that started Nov. 18 prevented 109,000 new coronavirus cases and 2,800 COVID-19 deaths in Michigan. It also found states with more restrictions contained the virus better than states with fewer closures.
Even though restaurants will reopen Feb. 1, Michigan’s Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun is encouraging people to stay away – and keep opting for takeout, delivery or outdoor dining.
“Just because something is open does not mean that it is 100% safe or that you should do it,” Khaldun said. “The safest thing to do is to not eat inside a restaurant.”
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