Michigan restaurant

A photo of Ernie's in Clinton Township. 

(The Center Square) – More than a year after the COVID-19 pandemic began, Michigan bars and restaurants are weary of the request to voluntarily accept restrictions for “two weeks to slow the spread.”

In November 2020, when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer asked for a “three-week pause” on indoor dining to slow COVID-19 case increases, the forced shutdown spread to 75 days.

So when Whitmer last Friday asked businesses to voluntarily shut down indoor dining again, the suspension of school sports and a full return to remote education, many balked. Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association President and CEO Justin Winslow called the recommendation “misguided.”

“Restaurant operators have done an extraordinary job of maintaining a safe and sanitized environment for guests and employees alike since reopening in February and it shows in the data,” Winslow said in a statement. “While Michigan is experiencing an unfortunate surge that has fashioned nearly 1,000 new and ongoing COVID-19 outbreak investigations, an insignificant 0.3% of those investigations involved restaurant patrons.”

The state’s COVID-19 outbreak tracker shows that the leading total outbreak sources are K-12 programs (301), construction (141), and long-term care (120).

Those are followed by youth programs (91), retail (81), office settings (45), and combined bars and restaurants (44), the seventh-highest recorded outbreak source. Meanwhile, retail stores have had nearly double the outbreaks (81), but Whitmer hasn’t called for a pause on big-box store activity.

Winslow pointed out Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance says those fully vaccinated – almost 40% of the Michigan’s adults – can safely dine indoors if they wear a mask and maintain physical distance. 

“As we approach a herd immunity in Michigan that will transform the hospitality industry for the better, it is incumbent on us all to act with common sense and proper precaution, Winslow said. “But the continued scapegoating of the restaurant industry without proof or reliable data won’t make it come any sooner."

In 2020, more than 3,000 Michigan restaurants closed. Michigan’s COVID-19 lockdown was the strictest in the Midwest, with private gross domestic product (GDP) falling “three times more than the Great Lakes region,” the Wall Street Journal reported.

Now, Michigan’s COVID-19 cases have risen for seven consecutive weeks with the case rate percent positivity exceeding November rates.

Several bars and restaurants contacted by The Center Square declined to comment on why they chose to continue indoor dining, citing fear of retribution from the Whitmer administration.

On Sunday on CBS’ Face the Nation, Whitmer couldn’t fully explain the increase in cases. “We are seeing a surge in Michigan despite the fact that we have some of the strongest policies in place, mask mandates, capacity limits, working from home,” Whitmer said.

Staff Reporter

Scott McClallen is a staff writer covering Michigan and Minnesota for The Center Square. A graduate of Hillsdale College, his work has appeared on Forbes.com and FEE.org. Previously, he worked as a financial analyst at Pepsi.