Detroit Zoo manager sues after refusing to open concessions during outbreak

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Royal Oak — A manager at the Detroit Zoo filed a federal lawsuit Friday alleging he was fired for refusing to open concession stands after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer banned large gatherings of people amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Royal Oak resident Brandon Romines, a food service operations manager, sued the zoo's concessions provider The SSA Group, for more than $75,000, according to a lawsuit that describes behind-the-scenes tension at a Detroit institution that balked at closing after the governor signed a wide-ranging executive order to stem the spread of the virus.

"Defendant in bad-faith, wrongfully, maliciously, and intentionally terminated (Romines') employment in violation of the public policy of the state of Michigan, causing him to be humiliated in the process," the man's lawyer, David Nacht, wrote in the lawsuit.

An SSA Group spokeswoman could not be reached for comment Friday.

"Brandon Romines is an employee of Service Systems Associates (SSA), not an employee of the Detroit Zoological Society," zoo spokeswoman Alexandra Bahou wrote in an email to The News on Friday. 

Zoo officials were informed that Romines had quit, she added.

Whitmer ordered the closing of places where people gather, including restaurants, bars, cafes, movie theaters, exercise facilities and casinos by 3 p.m. Monday. The zoo initially announced it would remain open with modifications before agreeing to close.

As food service operations manager, Romines oversaw the zoo's largest department and, at times, supervised more than 100 employees. SSA Group's concession stands fed more than 250 people on a typical weekend day, according to the lawsuit.

On March 13, Whitmer issued the executive order banning groups of 250 people or more from gathering during the outbreak as part of a broader state of emergency.

The next morning, Romines told his supervisor that opening concession stands would violate the governor's order and create a public hazard, the lawsuit says.

"(Romines) told his supervisor, that they saw over 13,000 people on the previous Sunday and no measures had been taken to limit attendance for the weekend of March 14, 2020," Nacht wrote.

The supervisor told Romines "he had no choice but to open the stands," according to the lawsuit.

Romines said he asked if he could take time off work.

The "supervisor said if he did not open the concession stands he would be fired," Nacht wrote.

"(Romines) then refused to open the large concessions, and defendant subsequently terminated plaintiff for his refusal," the lawyer wrote.

Romines has lost earnings and suffered mental anguish, physical and emotional distress, according to the lawsuit.

Twitter: @robertsnellnews