Andiamo owner asks restaurants to defy 'pause' on indoor dining if it is extended

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

Joe Vicari, the owner of several Metro Detroit restaurants that include the Andiamo brand, issued a letter to his fellow restaurant owners urging them to defy Michigan's temporary ban on indoor dining should it be extended past Dec. 8. 

Restaurant group owner Joe Vicari.

The letter says that if a lawsuit filed Nov. 17 by the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association and some Michigan restaurant owners against the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services is unsuccessful, Vicari expects Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to extend the pause "through the end of the year." 

If she does, says a screenshot of the letter obtained by The Detroit News, Vicari asks his fellow business owners to hold a "collective press conference" on Dec. 7 to "announce that as a powerful, collective group, we will be reopening our restaurants on Dec. 9." 

The rallying cry from Vicari comes as Michigan restaurants and bars are struggling with another lockdown that is hitting smack in the middle of the busy holiday season — with scant prospect of more COVID-19 relief coming from either the lame-duck Michigan Legislature or Congress.

In the letter, Vicari says that the industry cannot survive another extended closure: "Thousands of restaurants and tens of thousands of our employees cannot survive it either. We need to band together and FIGHT BACK, but we need to do this as a United Group of Michigan Restaurant Owners." 

The Joe Vicari Restaurant Group — which owns and operates the Andiamo and Joe Muer Seafood restaurants, among others — recently purchased three area restaurants to add to its roster, and listed Brownie's on the Lake in St. Clair Shores for sale. The listing for the property said the seasonal, lakefront business was profitable in 2020. 

Days after the lodging association lawsuit was filed, a judge denied the plaintiffs' request to immediately stop the ban on indoor dining. A hearing took place Monday with a ruling expected to come as early as Tuesday. 

Filing in Michigan's Western District, the lodging association, along with restaurant groups Heirloom Hospitality Group and Suburban Inns, argued the order banning indoor dining through Dec. 8 violated businesses' right to equal protection under the law, their right to due process, the clause of the U.S. Constitution that only allows Congress to regulate interstate commerce, and the separation of powers.

"MDHHS sympathizes with restaurants and their workers and understands the significant financial impacts of the order. However, it is necessary to save lives and protect the public health as COVID-19 cases numbers, deaths and hospitalizations have spiked dramatically," said Michigan Department of Health & Human Services' public information officer, Bob Wheaton, in a statement to The News. 

"We continue to urge everyone to do their part by wearing masks, physically distancing, washing their hands frequently and avoiding indoor gatherings so that restaurants can resume indoor dining as quickly and safely as possible."

Some restaurant owners say the three-week ban on indoor dining is different than the one ordered in the spring because there is less stimulus support for restaurants and employees. Others question why businesses like salons and gyms are allowed to welcome customers inside while restaurants cannot. 

Sandy Levine owns award-winning restaurant Chartreuse Kitchen and Cocktails in Detroit and the Oakland, a Ferndale cocktail lounge. He said the temporary shuttering of dining rooms by the state is "not arbitrary" and also that some business owners are focusing their anger in the wrong place.

“Malls or retail or whatever else all of those places, people are wearing masks," he said. "You can’t wear a mask when you’re eating food or drinking liquid. So it makes sense.”

Levine says both his businesses could face running out of money if COVID-19 numbers remain high and there is no government assistance. 

“There are all kinds of (businesses) that are at risk, and I’m one of them. There is no question that Chartreuse and the Oakland are in jeopardy … I feel pretty confident that we have the ability to get through the winter, but with no help from the government since early April, I don’t know that for sure.” 

He said he's angrier with the lack of support for small, independent businesses from Congress. 

“The restaurant industry is a bigger industry dollars-wise and people-wise than the airline industry, the cruise ship industry and all those other things, but has received no assistance and I think that speaks a lot to who certain members of the government want to take care of and (those who they) have no interest in taking care of," he said. 

“People being mad at the governor is just asinine to me, she’s done an amazing job and there’s some things that I've disagreed with that she’s done, but overall she’s trying to save people’s lives and their livelihoods. The people that have fought against this the hardest ... it’s hard for me to believe that safety is their top priority.” 

When reached Monday, representatives for the lodging association had no comment on Vicari's call to defy the ban if the lawsuit is not successful and the indoor dining band is extended. 

Should Vicari or other restaurant owners defy the ban on indoor dining, they could face suspension of their liquor licenses and other disciplinary actions. Last week, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issued citations and the Michigan Liquor Control Commission suspended liquor licenses of businesses that violated the order. 

The liquor commission ordered the emergency suspension of Cory's Restaurant in Newaygo, Brew Works in Fremont and the Meeting Place in Fenton for multiple violations regarding the order, including allowing indoor dining.

Waiter Eddie Henderson sets a table at Joe Muer Seafood located at the Renaissance Center in Detroit on Friday, September 11, 2020 as Covid-19 has hurt the business.

"MLCC’s Enforcement team continues working to ensure that licensees are compliant with the MDHHS most recent Gatherings and Face Mask Order which took effect on November 18, 2020, and remains in effect until December 8, 2020," the MLCC said in a statement about the suspensions. "Any licensed establishment that is in violation of the MDHHS emergency order will be held strictly accountable and risk suspension or revocation of its license."

A virtual hearing is scheduled Friday to determine if the suspension should continue or if other fines should be imposed.

Also, a Big Boy restaurant in Sandusky, Michigan, on Friday split from the corporate office and changed its name to Sandusky Diner after refusing to close its dining room. It was also cited by the state health department for violating the most recent order. 

More:Metro Detroit restaurants pivot as dining rooms close again

More:Restaurants sue to overturn Michigan's indoor dining ban

More:Brownie's on the Lake restaurant in St. Clair Shores listed for sale

Twitter: @melodybaetens