(The Center Square) – On Wednesday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer extended the statewide ban on indoor dining for the third time since last November.
She also said she “hopes” to reopen the industry on Feb. 1, with additional unspecified restrictions.
If extended through Jan. 31, Michigan restaurants will have their indoor dining forced closed for 75 days for what was initially a promised “three-week pause.”
Whitmer did loosen some restrictions. From Jan. 16-31, indoor group fitness classes and indoor non-contact sports are allowed to resume with masks.
In November, health officials said they were waiting for a decrease in three key metrics before reopening indoor dining: the share of hospital beds filled with COVID-19 patients; case rates; and the percent positivity rates.
Cases have declined for 46 days, and COVID-19 hospitalizations are down from 19.6% inpatient bed occupancy to 12.6%, health officials said last week. However, on Monday, the state's positivity rate was at 9.6%, an increase from 8.2% in late December. All metrics have decreased since November.
But the first-term Democrat argues there’s inherent risk of COVID-19 spread indoors at restaurants and bars.
The November closure aimed to reduce the spread of COVID-19, although contact tracing then showed bars and restaurants to be only the fourth-highest source of outbreaks.
Scott Ellis, executive director of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association, told The Center Square, “we’re absolutely stunned that we’re here again and not open [for indoor dining].”
“[Dine-in service] is 98% of the business,” Ellis said, adding that carryout really doesn’t pay the bills, and even carryout has dropped by half in the second restaurant shutdown compared to the first.
Part of their frustration stems from restaurants following Department of Health and Human Service (MDHHS) guidance that didn’t make a difference, Ellis said.
“We’ve done every single thing MDHHS asked us to do early on in June where they had us reopen — masking, no standing ... investments in plastic shields and sanitizer,” Ellis said. “And here we are, still shut down.”
Ellis said he’s seen more restaurants reopening illegally because they have no other choice — they’ll either lose their business through bankruptcy or the state revoking business licenses.
Republicans are pressing Whitmer to loosen restrictions.
Last week, House Appropriations Chair Thomas Albert, R-Lowell, said Whitmer must loosen restrictions before the legislature allocates federal COVID-19 relief funds.
On Wednesday, Senate Appropriations Chairman Jim Stamas, R-Midland, proposed stopping Whitmer’s appointments until she loosens COVID-19 restrictions.
“The governor is continuing punitive lockdowns and jeopardizing lives and livelihoods — while state government has largely been unaffected,” Stamas said in a statement.
Michigan is one of only a handful of states still prohibiting indoor dining.
Whitmer called these negotiating tactics “dangerous” and “irresponsible,” noting Michiganders rely on federal aid.
House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Clare, said Wednesday that Whitmer’s decisions to extend the ban were “arbitrary.”
“It’s frustrating that here again, we have an arbitrary date that’s been set for whatever reason — no one really knows why Feb. 1 magically appeared as a date now," Wentworth said at a Capitol press conference. "It was the 15th. ... what is it going to be on the first? Is it going to be [Feb.] 15th?”
“Let the individual businesses decide. But this is, again, the governor going out unilaterally making a decision.”
Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, called the announcement “tone-deaf.”
“Overreach by the Governor has crippled an entire industry and peripheral supply chain businesses,” Shirkey said in a statement.
“Further, the notion that she can select a perfect time for restaurants to open as opposed to allowing these local businesses to open when they are ready, continues the ‘government knows best’ attitude from the executive branch that is causing people and capital to leave Michigan.”
He continued: “There never was science or data to support the destruction of lives and livelihoods. And because the Governor never established causation, she may likely do it again.”