Opinion: Reopening Michigan restaurants for indoor dining is safe, necessary

Graham Filler

Michigan restaurants provide jobs for hundreds of thousands of people and play a vital role in strengthening the economies of local communities throughout our state. In fact, the food service industry generated about 447,200 Michigan jobs in 2019, accounting for about 10% of employment in our state.

That means the restaurant closures earlier this year and the current “pause” on indoor dining are directly impacting thousands of Michigan families — even though existing science and data shows minimal COVID-19 transmission from restaurant dining. The governor’s unfounded forced closure must come to an end now, before irreparable harm is done. 

This has been a very tough year for servers, cooks and the many other workers in the restaurant industry, Filler writes.

Let me be clear: This virus is something we all must continue taking very seriously, and I am committed to doing what I can to stop the spread. We all have a personal responsibility to do what we can to protect our families and neighbors and help our community survive this pandemic. Choosing to wear a mask, washing your hands frequently and avoiding close contact with others can help protect the lives and livelihoods of our friends and community members. That should be our focus until this virus is finally contained and controlled.

At the same time, I’m deeply worried about the state of our food service industry and the hardworking people who depend on restaurant jobs to pay their bills. I worry about whether many of the small businesses in our communities will be able to survive another shutdown, especially if the governor and her administration try to extend the indoor dining ban beyond the initial three-week pause that was promised.

It goes without saying that this has been a very tough year for servers, cooks and the many other workers in the restaurant industry. After the stay-at-home order and the months-long ban on indoor dining were lifted, most bars and restaurants went above and beyond to make adjustments — spending thousands on extra cleaning supplies, equipment and other COVID safety measures to make sure people can have a safe dining experience. Business owners limited capacity and followed recommended safety procedures. Workers donned masks and took on extra cleaning duties.

And it was working. Though admittedly difficult to trace, the COVID-19 Outbreak Investigation data tracked by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services attributes just a small number of statewide outbreaks to restaurants. And despite serving hundreds of thousands of people each day, there were just five active investigations in Michigan involving a restaurant patron when the DHHS issued its latest indoor dining ban.

Still, DHHS announced the shutdown on Nov. 15 — dealing an unnecessary blow to workers and business owners right as we head into the holiday season.

I don’t blame people who work in the restaurant industry for feeling like they have a target on their backs. The governor and her administration say they’re making decisions based on science and data — but anyone who looks at the data that’s publicly available will see that restaurants and bars are not the problem. Shutting them down for the second time this year is not going to make this virus go away.

If Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and DHHS Director Robert Gordon were using different data when they came to the decision to shut down dining in local restaurants, it needs to be made public. If the state is going to tear people’s lives apart, they at least deserve to know why. And they deserve honest metrics about what needs to happen before they’ll be allowed to get back on track.

About 2,000 Michigan restaurants have already closed their doors permanently during 2020, and the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association estimates that if the current shutdown is prolonged and federal stimulus dollars are not made immediately available, another 6,000 restaurants are likely to permanently close by spring, putting thousands more people out of work.

Too much is at stake. I urge the governor and her administration to reconsider the indoor dining ban and reopen restaurants for safe indoor dining. The livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Michigan families depend on it.

State Rep. Graham Filler, R-DeWitt, is serving his first term in the Michigan House representing residents of Clinton and Gratiot counties. A former assistant attorney general, he now serves as chair of the House Judiciary Committee.