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Opinion: Stay open or stop COVID-19? Fight the virus and help restaurants stay afloat

Rachel Hood

On one side is a rock, and the other is a hard place: This is my view as a legislator and co-owner of a brewery and restaurant.

By design, our legislature is strongest when representatives bring diverse experience across many industries. Just as I look to former prosecutors and defense attorneys to forge criminal justice reform, I hope my colleagues would look to members with backgrounds in public health and food service before influencing policy for my industry.

Some restaurants are panicking and defying orders because they feel forced to open, Hood writes.

If you know Grand Rapids, you have enjoyed our neighborhoods peppered with amazing local restaurants, breweries and distilleries. Our tight network of food & beverage industry leaders proactively launched the Michigan Restaurant Promise knowing this pandemic required trust-building with our customers. Together we shaped a culture of safe behavior for customers and staff rooted in science and government guidelines.

With months of experience, we know good protocols alone aren’t enough. Staying open required policy change: Federal stimulus loans and grants, expanding portability of liquor, outdoor eating expansion. But most critically, our industry depends on the general public to stay home, social distance, mask-up and wash hands frequently so we can reopen.

Imagine our disappointment over these months as the COVID-19 response was politicized by pundits and politicians. Denying proven pandemic solutions like emergency management, an enforceable mask rule or a second stimulus equates to multiple stab wounds in our industry’s back. Worse, the extension of this plague.

Now we’re wounded, bleeding, and infection is setting in. Some restaurants are panicking and defying orders because they feel forced to open. But we have a choice: We can pay to keep business alive through shutdowns with more stimulus, or we can pay with another costly and deadly wave of COVID-19.

Our lives, our future, requires that the U.S. Senate and Michigan legislative majority leaders prioritize substantive COVID-19 response bills over political theater and end-of-term pet projects in the final days of 2020.

More practically, there is a really tough business case to open our dining rooms. A CDC report in September indicated that dining out may increase your risk of contracting COVID-19. Further, many staff don’t want to risk their lives for less-than-usual tips; remember, they may be parents and caretakers for elderly family, and they often have another job or two.

Some people need work, and those are the folks serving on our skeleton crews for take-out orders. We pray those in the balance find their path forward fast. Unfortunately, many remain on my wait-list for unemployment benefits, another conundrum directly descended from Republican majority-led austerity measures that have crippled our future. Our office’s UIA cases are far from 100% resolved, and these people and their families keep us up at night.

Our business has moved swiftly by shutting down in-house service twice, practicing survival by adaptation. We need people to celebrate take-out night with enthusiasm! And we need elected leaders to act now to pass mask laws, fund stimulus and allow for reopening cautiously when the data indicate it is safe.

Failing to do so may be our final death blow. Our staff’s lives, our customers and our businesses are not expendable. Indeed, we will only overcome this virus when we are united against it toward a larger purpose, like generations before us.

State Rep. Rachel Hood, D-Grand Rapids, represents Michigan's 76th District. She is also the the co-owner of City Built Brewing Company.