Jacques: Once open, new hurdles await small businesses

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Michigan businesses shuttered for nearly two months are eagerly awaiting the chance to flip on the light switch. 

Once they do, however, they will face a whole new set of challenges. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s lockdown in response to COVID-19 has placed some of the most stringent measures on citizens and business owners, which has led to protests and others defying her decrees. 

Head cashier Analicia Lopez fills carry out orders at Taqueria Mi Pueblo in Detroit on April 30, 2020.  The restaurant has been closed since the coronavirus outbreak but opened this week for carry out business, just in time for Cinco de Mayo.

And now as the governor slowly eases up on her stay-home order and allows more sectors to come online, Michigan businesses must brace for a complicated regulatory framework of safety protocols. 

This will be especially difficult for small businesses, as many don’t have any expertise in acquiring personal protective equipment, not to mention keeping track of employee whereabouts and daily temperature checks. These demands raise all sorts of privacy issues that employers must now navigate. 

If we’ve learned anything from how Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel have enforced the stay-home order, businesses better be prepared to follow safety guidelines to a “T.”

Or else. 

Just look at how the state has stripped the license from Owosso barber Karl Manke, 77, and slapped him with steep fines and the threat of jail time after he decided to start cutting hair again this month out of financial desperation. 

More:State suspends Owosso barber's license for violating restrictions

Michigan Chamber President and CEO Rich Studley has stories about how the attorney general has dispatched local police officers (not health officials) to “check” on how essential businesses are employing safety protocols. 

Expect that level of scrutiny to continue.

Studley says he’s received a flood of phone calls from smaller employers who are very concerned about these next steps. 

The Legislature sought to get involved late last month when it passed a wide-reaching bill that would have adjusted Whitmer’s orders to allow more businesses to open sooner, and it would have offered less intrusive safety standards for businesses modeled off federal health guidelines. 

Yet Whitmer quickly vetoed that bill and ignored lawmakers’ suggestions. That’s part of why GOP leaders decided to sue the governor. 

More:Editorial: Legislature's lawsuit is necessary, reasonable

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, says the stipulations Whitmer is placing on reopening businesses will create hardship.

“It’s the pro-union small business destroyer plan,” Shirkey says. “It’s easy to govern when you can govern by executive order.” 

Small Business Association of Michigan President Brian Calley says his members, 1 in 7 of whom aren't confident they'll survive the closure orders, are worried about new regulations, as well as changing consumer habits resulting from the pandemic. 

“The rules are such that it places a natural advantage on bigger companies,” says Calley. 

He is pushing for a “small business iteration” of the current state guidelines for construction and manufacturing. 

In the meantime, he’s working to guide his members through other requirements, such as acquiring PPE. Calley has created a supply chain by asking Michigan businesses to turn to making face masks and other equipment, since most PPE suppliers only fulfill large orders.

Creating a safe environment will certainly be important for instilling confidence in employees and customers. Yet while the state can offer guidance for businesses, it shouldn’t crush them with intrusive mandates.

Businesses that are already struggling have enough to worry about. 

As Calley says, getting permission to open is one thing, but “getting the market back is entirely another thing.” 

Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques