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Businesses in northern Michigan, UP move cautiously toward reopening

Business owners in Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula say they’re ready to reopen following Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s announcement Monday of a partial reopening of those regions starting Friday.

“I’m very confident,” said Amanda Danielson, a co-owner of Italian restaurant Trattoria Stella in Traverse City. “We put all of our safety protocols in place as if we were receiving guests knowing that eventuality. We feel very prepared to be able to do so in a safe manner.”

The easing of restrictions on stores and restaurants in tourist-dependent northern Michigan was welcomed as the Memorial Day holiday approaches.

Traverse City is located in one of 17 northern Michigan counties that — along with the entire Upper Peninsula — will see lessened restrictions on Friday.

Whitmer’s plan reopens retail businesses and offices as well as bars and restaurants operating at 50% capacity. Employees must be trained on safety protocols.

“Obviously our biggest concern is the safety of our staff,” Danielson said. “We’re not a hotspot up here. We’ve had every few cases relatively speaking, which why we’re able to reopen, but at the same time the people that come here are from high-infected areas… Stella will look a little different until the scare of the virus is gone.”

Danielson said they’ve shifted the floor plan of the restaurant and cordoned off seating. Seating will only be available through reservations.

The relaxed rules represent a major step for restaurants, said Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association. The organization recently provided restaurateurs a roadmap to reopening that addresses sanitation, customer health and social distancing.

More:Here are the rules that will govern reopening in Northern Michigan, Upper Peninsula

“What happens in these two regions is going to help set the stage for what we hope is a quick reopening for the rest of the state…” Winslow said. “Even if you’re not in one of those two regions, it’s a sign of hope. It’s a tangible specific date certain that we know a restaurant will have the opportunity to demonstrate that they can operate safely."

In Sault Ste. Marie, Laurie Jarvie of gift shop Field and Forage said she’s excited to open her doors to customers again. She’s been operating her business through online sales, delivery and curbside pickups.

Jarvie said she was surprised by the governor’s decision for a partial reopening. She notes the low number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Chippewa County which includes Sault Ste. Marie. Since its last report last week there were seven confirmed cases in the county.

“I feel like the rest of the state really got punished because of the way things were downstate…” Jarvie said.

Jeff Bladzik, co-owner of the Painted Lady Saloon in Manistee, will continue to run the dining portion of the business as carryout only and allow drinkers at the bar.

“We’ve been doing to-go through this whole thing and we just feel it will add a lot of chaos to us if we’re trying to do in-house,” he said. “If the amount of takeout stays at the level it is, we won’t be able to handle it both ways because of the limited space we have in our kitchen."

Warren Call, president and CEO of Traverse Connect, which merged with the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce in 2019, said his organization has advocated for the phased reopening announced by Whitmer on Monday because nearly half of his area's employees are in the hospitality and healthcare sectors. 

"It's only a handful of industries, but it's an important step in the process," he said. "It's always amazing how flexible entrepreneurs are. We've seen great pivots for businesses adding curbside, take out, catering and now they can add to that partial re-openings that will only help them get enough cash flow to make it work. We're making sure every sector is prepared when they get their shot." 

Rich Studley, president and CEO of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, said the phased re-opening is "long overdue" and "should have happened weeks ago."

"It's been clear the COVID outbreak is subsiding in Michigan," he said. "There's a lot of good people in the (Whitmer) administration, but there's not a lot of people in the administration who have ever owned and operated a business." 

Studley said the next few weeks will be critical for seasonal businesses.

"This is when you have soft openings," he said. "This is when they stock the shelves. This is when they do trainings. If you're a hospitality business in the U.P. and you're not open by Memorial Day ... in many cases, they only have June, July and August to earn the revenue need for the year." 

Bill Golden, co-president of Golden Shoes on Traverse City's Front Street, said his business has been down 96% since he started doing curbside orders only on March 20. He's been planning for the day when his business was cleared to reopen. 

"I have all my (personal protective equipment)," he said. "Masks, gloves. Two weeks ago I had the carpets cleaned. I said I want to be ready when it's time to go.

"The only thing I don't have is signs for distancing and I pick those up tomorrow," Golden continued. "I have my thermometer. Every one of my employees is going to have their temperature taken when they come through the door." 

Tina Schuett, owner of the Rare Bird Brewpub in Traverse City, is not ready to re-open right away.

"We're not going to open until the 28th just to make sure we're keeping our staff and patrons safe," she said. "We kind of want to let the first wave pass by and then we'll jump in." 

Schuett is also worried about a potential influx of out-of-towners from areas of the state that will still be closed. 

"The scariest thing to us is the fact that people from downstate, in the higher-risk zones, are going to be coming up here now," she said. "It seems like a guarantee that we will see an increase in cases up here when it happens."