Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced last week that the state’s restaurants and bars could resume indoor dining next month under a new epidemic order beginning on Feb. 1, ending an almost two-month “pause” that forced thousands out of work and threatened to shutter just as many businesses permanently. As she has before, Whitmer said indoor restaurant dining is inherently more dangerous because people merge households and remove their masks so they can eat and drink. 

The news was greeted with relief by the struggling industry, though with concern that tight capacity restrictions may make it tough for some establishments to turn a profit, especially those offering full-service dining, which accounts for 40 to 50 percent of the state’s restaurants. The dining industry was recently dismayed by the state’s first and second extensions of the ban on indoor dining in December and earlier in January, even as the rate of new cases fell rapidly. According to federal data, Michigan has been hard hit with restrictions during the pandemic, forcing 32 percent of the state’s businesses to close at least temporarily, the most of any state in the nation.

Indeed, recent survey data revealed that in the next six months, 5,600 Michigan restaurants (33 percent) are likely to close permanently, and approximately 850 hotels in Michigan (two-thirds) reported they will be able to last six more months at current revenue and occupancy levels without any additional relief.

The Michigan Department of Technology Management and Budget reports that the state’s leisure and hospitality industry lost roughly 60,000 jobs in December compared to the previous month once the restrictions took effect, dropping to 229,000. Just a year earlier, the industry employed an estimated 434,000. 

Wishing the announcement had come sooner, Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association President and CEO Justin Winslow said in a statement that reopening is “good, if overdue news.” However, additional operators and some state lawmakers denounced the 25 percent capacity limits, arguing that restaurants have endured the brunt of restrictions even as coronavirus cases have lessened, with an estimated 1 in 6 of the 17,000 restaurants in Michigan permanently closed since the pandemic began. Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, commented that “Gov. Whitmer makes clear with her actions today that she does not care about family businesses.” He went on to say, “Granting restaurant owners an arbitrary and meager percentage of operating capacity will not help them bring their businesses back from the brink of failure. If the governor thinks 25 percent is adequate, perhaps Gov. Whitmer should only receive 25 percent of her salary.”

Shirkey and other leaders in the Republican-controlled Legislature have threatened to withhold approval for Whitmer appointments and other measures unless she compromises on COVID-19 restrictions. More recently, Whitmer has received bipartisan pressure to reopen restaurants over the past week as the Jan. 31 expiration of the restrictions approached. On Jan. 21, the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners sent its third request to Whitmer to allow the indoor-dining restrictions to cease, with Chairman Roger Bergman writing, that restaurants are “stretched to or beyond the breaking point.”

Not a moment too soon, the Wolverine State’s new order came from the desk of Robert Gordon, the former director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, who abruptly resigned without explanation on Friday. The order will last from Feb. 1 through Feb. 21, with restaurants and bars permitted to offer indoor dining at 25 percent capacity with up to 100 people, and they must close by 10 p.m. each night. Tables must have no more than six people, and they must be six feet apart. They must also collect contact information from diners for contact tracing. Gordon noted that a sustained decrease in new coronavirus cases and positive rates are ending the ban on indoor dining, adding, “While restaurants will be reopening on that day, there will continue to be risk associated with indoor dining.” 

Gordon, who became the target of a group of protesters last month who demonstrated outside his home, was thrust into the public spotlight after the Michigan Supreme Court ruled Oct. 2 that Whitmer had violated her constitutional power by continuing to issue executive orders to combat COVID-19 without the approval of state lawmakers. The governor’s administration immediately moved to implement epidemic orders issued by Gordon under the Public Health Code to impose restrictions on public gatherings and require that masks be worn. 

Despite telling residents of her own state to stay home and avoid large crowds, Whitmer traveled to Washington D.C. to attend the invitation-only inauguration of then-President-elect Joe Biden, remarking, “The country is ready for a leader who listens to medical experts to lead our country’s COVID-19 response and works on behalf of hardworking Americans.” Biden recently named her a vice-chair of the Democratic National Committee, and she also served as a national co-chair of his campaign.

Brendan McDermid/Reuters

Whitmer, a harsh critic of President Trump, has been questioned over her draconian tactics in managing the pandemic in her state. Since November, case counts have plunged, and the state’s rate per 100,000 people is one of the lowest in the country, as is the percent of COVID-19 tests that are coming back positive. In fact, on Jan. 21, the state reported just 4.9 percent of over 50,000 tests were positive, the lowest rate since Oct. 21.

Although limiting, the nonetheless optimistic news in Michigan could be short-lived, as Whitmer did not rule out that new restrictions could be ordered if the state’s coronavirus case counts climb as officials worry about a new, more transmissible variant that has just been detected among three people in Ann Arbor.