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Theaters, eateries, more decry 'hypocrisy'; others accept new restrictions

Detroit — Some of the businesses hit by the Whitmer administration's latest restrictions questioned Sunday why they were singled out even though they have accounted for a small proportion of COVID-19 cases, while others accepted the measures.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services order, which comes as Michigan is battling record coronavirus cases, temporarily suspends indoor dining at restaurants and bars and closes certain businesses where people gather, including movie theaters, casinos and bowling alleys, starting Wednesday.

The order lasts for three weeks, ending Dec. 8 unless state health officials don't see the virus come under control. The state broke its weekly coronavirus case record last week with a total of 44,019 new cases reported, the fifth consecutive record week for confirmed infections.

PJ's Lager House

“This is my first week back open since the shutdown and we moved into this location in February, right before COVID hit Detroit," said Drew Matthews, owner of LeCulture Cafe located in downtown Detroit. "It’s hard enough trying to maintain a business, not to mention a Black-owned business at that, and this just kind of puts a monkey wrench in successfully running my restaurant.” 

The state health department is halting indoor dining even though it attributes about 4% of all outbreaks to restaurants statewide, the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association highlighted in its statement.

"We have such high concentration of community spread all across the State of Michigan that this action today is not a stay-at-home order, but it is geared toward limiting indoor gatherings of groups of people," Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said during a Sunday evening press conference announcing the order.

"Naturally, places where people are coming from all over to dine inside is an inherently more dangerous activity with this much COVID present all across the state." 

Association President and CEO Justin Winslow said the organization recognizes "there are no easy decisions right now," but it is disappointed in the choice to close indoor seating at restaurants.

"Shutting down dine-in service removes the ability to accommodate that natural human desire in a highly regulated, sanitized, capacity-limited and appropriately spaced setting in a restaurant," Winslow said in a statement. "Instead, it will drive that behavior to innumerable residential social gatherings over the holidays, which have already proven to be super-spreader environments."

About 2,000 Michigan restaurants have already closed permanently this year, according to the association. 

Café Cortina in Farmington Hills has made the most of its patio and garden, offering room for 60 guests to social distance outside. Owner Rina Tonon said while the restaurant also has a steady carryout business, closing the dining room again will be “challenging.”

“We knew that this could happen because of other places not respecting (Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s) rules,” Tonon said. “We respected her rules. We did everything the way she wanted, and now, yes, many places are going to have to get the brunt of this."

Guests were calling the Oakland County cafe to reserve a spot in the outdoor space even after the order was announced

“People still want to dine out. We have the big fireplace, people love it,” Tonon said.

After Sunday’s announcement, Paul “PJ” Ryder, owner of storied live music venue and Corktown hangout PJ’s Lager House, said he’s closing the bar and is not sure when or if it will reopen. 

“It’s really hard to survive,” Ryder said at the Detroit venue, adding that he’s gotten grants and federal Paycheck Protection Program loans but that can only go so far. “All the money that I’ve got from grants and PPP loans have gone to paying staff. You pay everything else from the money you have coming in, and you just don’t have enough money coming in.” 

Ryder, who purchased the historic pub in 2007 and listed it up for sale last year, said he doesn’t blame Whitmer for the new restrictions but said the government will have to step in and help small businesses if they want them to stay afloat. 

“I don’t think she’s gone too far," he said about Whitmer. "In all honesty I think she should have done this a couple of weeks ago."

Movie theaters, which just reopened in early October, expressed stronger disappointment in the new order. 

“While we respect the governor’s decision to ‘pause’ on a host of activities to halt the spread of COVID-19, we continue to be struck by the hypocrisy and inconsistencies in determining which sectors of the economy to close and which are allowed to remain open," Co-Founder and Chairman at Emagine Entertainment Paul Glantz said in a statement.

Paul Glantz, CEO of Emagine, displays the 7 feet distance between seats in the theater at Emagine Macomb, Wednesday, September 30, 2020.

"There has not been a single reported outbreak of COVID-19 among guests at movie theaters worldwide, but our governor and her health director have chosen to single-out our industry for closure."

In the summer, Glantz told The Detroit News the prior closure order had forced Emagine's 11 theaters, nine of which are in Michigan, to cut 99% of their workforce — down to 20 employees from 1,400, some of whom are part time. The theater chain generated a much smaller stream of revenue by offering weekend drive-in movies at the Novi location.

Ruth Daniels, managing partner at the Maple Theater in Bloomfield Township, called Sunday’s news “disappointing.”

“I’m still kind of in shock,” she said Sunday evening. 

Business had been slow since reopening, Daniels said, but the theater had done well with its popular “Secret Cinema” program. And there was excitement over “Mank,” the latest from director David Fincher, which was set to open at the theater this coming Friday.

Daniels said movie theaters are still battling the perception that movies are unsafe.

"From what we know, there has not been a case reported in a movie theater,” she said. “But there’s lots of people who are not ready to go back to the movies.”

Paula Guthat, co-owner of Midtown’s two-screen independent movie theater Cinema Detroit, wasn’t surprised at Sunday’s announcement, given the way cases have been trending in Michigan.

“I don’t see what else could have been done,” she said.

But Guthat said theaters are getting an unfair rap: “I wish we were classed with the retail operations, where we could still operate with limits. We’re one of the safest places you can be, actually.”

Since theaters were able to reopen Oct. 9, “business had been pretty light,” because of lack of product and the public's perception that theaters are unsafe, Guhat said.

The latest closure is another blow in what has been a difficult 2020, but she stressed: “We are not going anywhere. We’ll still be here. I’m concerned, certainly, but I’m not giving up. This isn’t fatal.”

Whitmer gave Detroit's three casinos the green light to reopen in August after the March shutdown. Detroit's three casinos are a prime source of revenue for Michigan's largest city. The casinos generated about $600,000 in tax revenues for the city per day. 

John Drake, vice president and general manager of Greektown Casino, said the business has "been successfully operating under comprehensive safety protocols since reopening in August, in addition to significantly reduced capacity levels.  We will continue to work closely with the Michigan Gaming Control Board, state and local leaders, and public health officials to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and we hope to resume operations as quickly as possible.”

Other casinos couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

Ryan Redmond, a part-time shift manager at Alley 59, a bowling alley in the charter township of Clinton, called the news that bowling alleys would again have to close "a punch in the gut."

"We do our best to keep a safe environment for our customers, and ever since we've been able to open back up people have followed all the rules," he said.

The bowling alley gets much of its business from leagues, whose members have done a good job of following requirements such as wearing masks, Redmond said. He said he is unaware of any COVID-19 cases tied to the business.

He expects that having to close for three weeks will have a significant effect on the business because it comes during the alley's busiest period. 

"It's huge. This is the pinnacle of our season. Being down in the summer didn't hurt us so much, but three weeks now is like three months in the summer."

While many bowlers have returned, Alley 59 was already feeling the effects of the pandemic because some customers have yet to return since the previous closure. But until now, at least, the business has had some revenue coming in, Redmond said.

"As a whole, it sucks," he said. "We've done our part. We've played by the rules, and I'm sure so many people have."

Staff Writers Leonard N. Fleming and Jordyn Grzelewski contributed.

khall@detroitnews.com