Undoubtedly adding to the confusion of Michigan’s three-week indoor dining closure that took effect on Wednesday, November 18, the Department of Health and Human Services issued additional guidance on what qualifies as outdoor seating under the new epidemic order. Spoiler: Many outdoor seating structures don’t qualify.
According to an FAQ provided by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) clarifying details of the epidemic order, indoor seating areas are defined as “a space enclosed fully or partially on the top, and enclosed fully or partially on more than one side.” It goes on to state that temporary structures such as “tents or canopies with sidewalls or coverings” would be considered indoor seating unless they’re “open on three sides.”
However, spaces like plastic igloos and yurts that are designed to seat single parties of six people or fewer from a single household (unclear how one might determine that if people weren’t even willing to provide real names for contact tracing) to comply with the outdoor seating order. The FAQ specifically states that service staff enter domes and other enclosed structures “fleetingly or not at all.” Eater has reached out to MDHHS for additional clarification regarding how best to sanitize and air out small tented structures between seatings. Outdoor, socially-distanced seating with heaters and no coverings are allowed under the rules.
Indoor dining is only permitted in custodial settings, medical facilities, school and university cafeterias, shelters, and soup kitchens, and diners in those contexts must be spaced six feet apart at a table. Airport restaurants will be closed for anything but takeout over the holidays.
While the guidance was likely an effort to balance safety with the harsh economic cost of closing down portions of in-person restaurant and bar service, the limitations to outdoor seating have added to the stress levels of an industry at the end of its rope. Many restaurant and bar owners heavily invested in their patios this year in an effort to ensure a safe outdoor seating experience that also provided comfort to their guests. But in many cases, those patio structures will not work under the new order, leaving businesses with few options.
At Batch Brewing Company in Corktown, owner Stephen Roginson and his partners pieced together grant money and PPP loans to build an outdoor pole barn structure over the summer for an entirely outside service system. The restaurant added three removable walls to the outside of the barn and heaters this fall to partially protect the space from the elements while allowing airflow. He was disappointed to learn late on Tuesday afternoon that his carefully planned space was considered indoor dining by MDHHS.
“I’m flabbergasted because anybody that came and saw our structure would say, ‘This is open and it’s outdoors, there’s a lot of air moving, and this is safe,’” Roginson told Eater by phone on Wednesday morning.
While Roginson recognizes the need for officials to create a clear policy without loopholes for the safety of the community, he’s struggling to understand why outdoor dining recommendations weren’t made by the agency sooner when businesses were preparing for the inevitability of a pandemic surge in the winter. “It renders all of the work and investments that I’ve made in this space, preparing for this very moment, this inevitability, kind of moot,” he says. Roginson had already begun planning to offer restaurants like Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails opportunities to pop up in his space throughout the season if they did not have an outdoor seating option.
Batch could in theory remove two of its walls to meet the requirements of the new order, but in addition to making the space too cold and inefficient to heat, Roginson believes that would defeat the purpose of having the order in the first place. “I don’t think the move right now is to take down walls and fly in the face of the intent of the order, which is everybody go home and hunker down for a while,” he says.
Despite some of the negative reactions from portions of the restaurant and bar community, Roginson is grateful for the efforts the governor’s office has made to keep citizens safer during this pandemic and demoralized by the lack of leadership from the federal government. “It would be easier if there were a federal program in place right now,” to pay people to stay home, Roginson says. “That’s just not where we are and where my employees are. So I now need to figure out, how do I operate a business to keep those people employed, and keep money flowing for them when I don’t have you know, any of the tools in my arsenal?”
Eater is tracking the impact of the novel coronavirus on the local food industry. Have a story to share? Reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Nov 18 FAQs Gatherings and Face Mask Order [MDHHS Official]
• Michigan Rolls Back Indoor Dining at Restaurants and Bars [ED]
• For New Detroit Restaurants, Michigan’s Indoor Dining Closure Signals a Difficult Winter to Come [ED]
• Michigan Restaurant Association Sues State Health Director Over Indoor Dining Closures [ED]