On Thursday, October 29, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issued new mandates regarding restaurant and bar operations during the COVID-19 pandemic. While many of the rules remained consistent with previous orders that have existed since summer, food and beverage businesses are now required to limit groups to six people or less and must begin recording customer’s names, phone numbers, and the dates and times of their visits for contact tracing purposes.
Although the changes seemed relatively modest in comparison to what the industry went through earlier this year with dine-in shutdowns, to many restaurants and bar owners, the announcement of the new rules felt like another blow to their businesses at a time when they were just beginning to find a routine.
Nancy Diaz is the the owner of La Palapa del Parian and the El Parian food truck fleet, and recently took over Taqueria Los Altos in Southwest Detroit. Diaz, like many business owners, is concerned that customers may react negatively to the new guidelines from the state. Many people in the neighborhood already are reticent about sharing personal information due to the fact that they are or may live with someone who is undocumented. “There’s some people that don’t even understand why they have to wear a mask when they’re coming into the restaurant,” she says. “I was just getting them used to [the system], and now I have to get them used to to a whole new process.”
Likewise, Diaz had already faced challenges for large groups wanting to dine-in at her restaurant. Two weeks ago, Diaz says that a group of 15 people came in and wanted to be seated at one table. At the time, La Palapa Del Parian was already limiting groups to 10 people or less. When Diaz offered to break the group up across two tables, the customers decided to walk out. She understands why customers are frustrated, but also knows how important it is as a business owner to comply with the state’s regulations. Not following the rules could result in business licensing issues and fines. She also points out that many families live in households with more than six people; under the rules, she wouldn’t be able to accommodate those families dining in.
At Ivy Kitchen and Cocktails on Detroit’s east side, owner Nya Marshall was bristling over the new regulations on Friday. “All these mandates are coming out without any preparation, without any advance notice,” she says. “Most restaurants are not making any money right now. We’re lucky to break even, and to impose rapid restrictions upon us that require labor hours, require technical assistance, and not provide any resources — it’s kind of insulting.”
Marshall is particularly concerned about how limits to groups will impact her restaurant, which opened in January and was only able to reopen this fall with help for a state-assisted crowdfunding campaign. “This is definitely affecting my brunch. My brunch is filled with groups of 10 people or more, and now to limit it to six people is just, again, we’re not making any money.” Marshall, like Diaz, also points out that the rule doesn’t fit households with large families. “I understand the rules, but groups of six or more live in one household. So, does that mean they can’t dine together? It just doesn’t really make sense to me.”
While she’s aware that the public health concerns are pressing, Marshall feels like business owners have largely been left out of the conversations that impact their industry and aren’t receiving enough warning or assistance on how to to create new processes as the guidelines shift. “When you implement a mandate, give the business — not just restaurants, but all businesses — time to react to it, instead of giving us a day, two days, three days. That simply doesn’t make sense,” she says.
On Friday, October 30, Diaz and her staff were left scrambling to find ways to conform to the new contact tracing regulations, which go into full effect on Monday, November 2. She initially considered asking the host to track each customer’s information, but has since she decided that it would place less pressure on the staff if they instead placed Spanish and English cards on tables explaining the new dining rules and asking customers to fill out their information themselves. “The people that do [our] printing work, they don’t work on the weekend,” she says. “I don’t want to rush them, but I’m gonna have to rush them.”
Stephen Roginson was in the same situation, trying to brainstorm the simplest system at Batch Brewing Company in Corktown. “It would be one thing if we had a reservation system,” Roginson says, pointing out that sites like OpenTable and Tock already record names, phone numbers, and the days and times people are visiting a business. “I’m just really hoping people aren’t going to be weirded out by us collecting their personal data,” he says, noting that just because it’s required, doesn’t mean people will necessarily provide correct information. For now, he plans to place a guest book at the entrance to the pole barn where Batch is currently seating customers, and ask patrons to sign in.
Due to the short notice, Marshall says she’s forced to use a manual system for now, having employees take down guest information by hand. Eventually, she hopes to implement a system where customers register online with their contact information. “That way, I will not have to have someone manually taking care of that task, because I can’t afford it,” she says, pointing out that the requirement will result in more work for an already stressed staff.
For every restaurant owner Eater spoke with, the news of new regulations and a surge in novel coronavirus cases is surfacing fears that another dine-in shutdown could be on the way. “I think that’s every bar’s and every restaurant’s fear that we might have to shut down again — especially in communities like Southwest Detroit,” Diaz says. Diaz says that many neighborhood customers work in landscaping or construction, which already leads to declining sales in the winter. If restaurants are forced to once again halt in-person service, that could make the season even more difficult. “[Customers aren’t] going to go out and spend money on ordering food... They’re going to spend money on food at home to cook meals to save themselves money,” Diaz says.
“I was already losing my hair anyways,” Diaz says of the 2020 stress. “It is what it is. We have to deal with it. As long as we’re all healthy and safe, we should be fine. I think that’s the most important thing.” She hopes that the new regulations will help slow the surge in COVID-19 cases. “I understand that our numbers are going up,” she says. “If this helps us avoid getting shut down again, we might as well just do it.”
• Amid Surge in COVID-19 Cases, Michigan Health Department Revises Rules for Bars and Restaurants [ED]
• What Are Michigan’s COVID-19 Rules for Restaurants and Bars Right Now? [ED]
• How Coronavirus Is Impacting the Detroit Food and Beverage Industry [ED]