Indoor dining at Michigan restaurants, bars will reopen Feb. 1 at 25% capacity

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Indoor dining at restaurants and bars in Michigan will resume on Feb. 1, 75 days after it was suspended amid a surge in COVID-19 infections.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the reopening Friday morning, the latest signal that health officials believe the state is moving past a second wave of the virus that struck in the fall.

Under a new epidemic order that will last from Feb. 1 through Feb. 21, restaurants and bars will be allowed to offer indoor dining at 25% capacity with up to 100 people, and they must close by 10 p.m. each night. Tables must also be six feet apart with no more than six people per table.

Diners will be required again to provide contact tracing information for restaurants, and eateries must close and be deep cleaned if an employee is confirmed positive for the virus or shows symptoms.

"The science around this virus is settled, and if we can all wear masks and be very smart about congregating, and not do it unless it's necessary, washing our hands, doing that social distancing, we will be in a strong position in a few weeks," Whitmer said during a press conference. "And we'll be able to do more. That's the hope.

"But the reality of this moment is that wearing masks and being smart is going to have to be how we operate for quite a while."

Vince Passalacqua, owner of Mario’s, the iconic 70-year-old Italian favorite in Detroit’s Midtown district, welcomed the governor's announcement. 

“Of course we’re happy to be open,” he said. “It’s been a struggle just doing carryouts. Twenty-five percent (capacity) is better than nothing, but I think it’s a little overboard.”

He wishes restaurants like his were allowed to open sooner than Feb. 1. “A lot sooner,” he said.

Other states with slightly higher positivity rates, such as Florida, didn’t put the same restrictions on restaurants, Passalacqua said. “It’s been driving consumers crazy over here because they weren’t given the choice to eat in a restaurant," he said.

Other details in order

Under the new order, non-residential gatherings of up to 10 people from two households are allowed. But the state health department continued to encourage people to stay home as much and avoid indoor gatherings as much as possible to fight the spread of COVID-19 as a new, more contagious strain of the virus has been confirmed in Michigan.

If people hold indoor gatherings, the state urges families to select only one other household to interact with consistently.

Outdoor gatherings are limited to 25 or fewer individuals comprised of no more than three households at residential locations. At non-residential venues, gatherings are limited to 25 or fewer people where there is no fixed seating and 20 individuals per 1,000 square feet and 25 people at places with fixed seating. "Attendance is limited to 20% of seating capacity of the venue," according to the order.

There are exceptions for child care and other facilities set out in the order.

The order will also allow for concessions at casinos, movie theaters and stadiums. Patrons must remain masked at all times except when eating or drinking in designated areas.

Whitmer's Friday press conference comes as overall COVID-19 infection rates in Michigan continue to drop. Last week, Michigan reported 12-week lows for new cases and the percentage of tests bringing positive results. The positivity rate dropped to 6.7%. It was 14.2% the week of Nov. 29 through Dec. 5.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at a press conference on Friday, Jan. 22.

Amid increasing hospitalizations tied to the virus, Whitmer and Robert Gordon, then-director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, first announced their "pause to save lives" on Nov. 15. The order, which was originally planned to last only three weeks beginning Nov. 18, shuttered indoor dining, in-person instruction at high schools and other businesses, like movie theaters.

State officials have since gradually lifted restrictions from the pause, culminating with the reopening of indoor dining on Feb. 1.

"The pause has worked," Whitmer said. "The efforts we have made together to protect our families, frontline workers and hospitals have dramatically reduced cases and we have saved lives."

Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association, welcomed the decision to reopen indoor dining. It was “overdue news,” Winslow said. The industry has lost nearly 3,000 restaurants and employs 200,000 fewer people than it did a year earlier, according to the association.

“It is now time for this administration to move aggressively towards a more comprehensive reintegration strategy, which includes prioritizing vaccination for the broader hospitality industry and establishing clear metrics for phased reopening to 100% capacity of indoor dining,” he said.

But state Rep. Julie Calley, R-Portland, said she is concerned the restrictions on reopened restaurants and bars are too severe.

"I’ve heard from many local business owners," Calley tweeted Friday morning. "This isn’t enough. Our state will be facing more permanent job losses."

Likewise, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, vowed to "fight to fully reopen Michigan’s economy and pursue additional ways to reduce costs for our local businesses."

Republican lawmakers have suggested they would block the governor's appointees or withhold appropriations until more restrictions were lifted.

"Granting restaurant owners an arbitrary and meager percentage of operating capacity will not help them bring their businesses back from the brink of failure," Shirkey said. "If the governor thinks 25% is adequate, perhaps Gov. Whitmer should only receive 25% of her salary.”

Stephanie Byrd, owner of Detroit restaurants Flood's Bar and Grill and The Block restaurant, called the announcement “good news, but not great news.” 

Twenty-five percent capacity will be enough for businesses to ask some employees to return to work, but not many, Byrd said. The state’s move to resume dine-in service appears to be a case of too little, too late for some restaurants, she said.

“Hopefully, that won’t be the case for us,” Byrd said. “We support (the governor) in wanting to keep everyone safe, especially since most of our guests are Black and we’ve been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. We’ve been very sensitive to that, but, you know, I’ll take it.”

Curfew 'is going to hurt'

Ohio has had a 10 p.m. curfew on indoor dining at restaurants and bars. This week, Gov. Mike DeWine announced the Ohio Department of Health would extend the policy.

Mario's Passalacqua said he didn’t think the 10 p.m. curfew will have much of an effect on his restaurant.

“I’m a dinner house, so it isn’t (a big deal) for me,” he said. “Most people eat before 10. During theater season, we’re open late, but most people just have dessert. Nobody’s really ordering a meal afterward.”

In Illinois, the state has begun allowing indoor dining to resume on a region-by-region basis. Gov. J.B. Pritzker is letting bars and restaurants reopen in six of the state's 11 regions, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Indiana has allowed indoor dining to occur with restrictions, including a 75% capacity limit, according to the National Restaurant Association.

Overall, Detroit restaurant owner Byrd said she’s glad to be able to offer dine-in service once again. “I would rather open at 25% and see how things go than open at 50%, have things go haywire and us be shut down again.”

As for the curfew, Byrd said it will hurt the bar at Flood's but won't affect the restaurant.

In normal times, Flood's is open until 2 a.m., so the curfew will be felt, she said. "That’s going to hurt," she said.

She said that’s the part of the new order with which she doesn’t agree. “I support the 25% as long as we’re allowed to stay open late enough to recoup some of our money,” she said.

To compensate for losses from the curfew, Byrd said the bar, which is usually open Wednesday through Sunday, may have to open an additional day or open earlier. “We’re going to have to try to figure it out,” she said.

In a Tuesday interview, Gordon, who abruptly resigned Friday as director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said the state remained on a path toward reopening indoor dining at restaurants on Feb. 1 and has gone from having one of the highest coronavirus case rates in the nation to one of the lowest.

In a Friday statement, Gordon said unmasked, indoor activities like dining and drinking are still "a source of high risk around COVID-19."

"The safest course remains to support your favorite restaurant with carryout, delivery or outdoor dining," he said.

The administration also emphasized a voluntary "MI COVID-19 Safer Dining" program, which allows food service establishments to become certified by having their ventilation system inspected and submitting their inspection report to the state indicating they are optimizing airflow. Once certified, businesses will be featured on the website and receive a copy of their certification.

"Are we out of the woods? Absolutely not. I couldn’t say that more strongly," Gordon said Tuesday. "But we should feel good about the path that we traveled."

Staff Writer Charles E. Ramirez contributed.