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Detroit Restaurant Owners Question Whether Their Businesses Qualify as ‘Essential’

Some restaurants and cafes that planned to remain open with carryout service are now shutting their doors out of concern for the health and safety of staff and customers

Red tea brews in siphons and pours into a white to-go cup at Eli Tea.
Eli Tea decided to close over the weekend, citing concerns for the health and safety of staff and customers.
Stock Detroit

The past three weeks have been a cascade of emotions for Elias Majid. On Tuesday, March 10, the owner of Eli Tea in Birmingham braced and waited as the initial novel coronavirus cases were identified in Michigan and the state began implementing restrictions on large gatherings. Within days, restaurants were told to shut down for dine-in service.

Through the “stay at home, stay safe” order, Eli Tea soldiered on, stacking up the chairs in its cafe and getting stricter with its policies for maintaining social distance and sanitizing: The shop limited customer contact to the ordering counter and closed down the self-service sugar area. The restrooms were closed to customers and the cafe began taking only credit cards to shorten contact time with patrons and to compensate for the lack of access to disposable gloves.

While other restaurants around the region took major financial hits, Majid was surprised by his own relatively steady sales. “Business did not go down as much as I thought it would,” he says. It could have been enough to sustain the shop financially for a few months, but on Sunday, March 29, Majid tells Eater, he decided to end carryout service. The risk of infection was simply too great. “Just looking at the numbers and being in Oakland County, it’s just only a matter of time before our staff gets sick from someone coming in,” he says.

Michigan’s current executive order — like many similar shelter in place orders across the country — establishes restaurants as “essential services” in the same category as hospitals and grocery stores. But after several weeks of operating with safety precautions in place, some business owners are starting to question whether restaurants actually qualify as “essential” during a pandemic. For Majid the answer was “no.”

While many customers were supportive of staff, offering extra tips to workers who had seen their hours cut due to the pandemic, Majid says that others questioned whether the virus was a threat and blatantly ignored social distancing barriers and other sanitation rules that the cafe had adopted. “Some customers were very resistant,” he says. “We had a customer come in who was visibly sweating and shaking and coughing and using a facial mask. That was a red light.” It wasn’t long after that encounter that he announced Eli Tea was closing.

Last week, chef Reniel Billups opened her new Pontiac restaurant Flavors of Jamaica to the public for the first time. Despite her earlier fears that the pandemic would keep customers from patronizing the restaurant, she had a relatively successful first week of business with a steady increase of daily carryout sales. “The community really, really came out and supported us,” Billups says. Nevertheless, Sunday, March 29, was Flavors of Jamaica’s last day of service until the extended executive order lifts on April 13.

“As much as we would like to make money, money is not the most important thing,” Billups says of the decision to close, adding that closing temporarily was the “responsible” thing to after cases in Michigan continued to climb over the weekend and the government extended its social distancing guidelines to April 30. “We want to make sure that we’re doing our part and make sure that everyone who comes in contact with us is safe, so we’re not putting them in any further danger than they need to be,” Billups explains.

During the restaurant’s limited week of service, Billups asked customers to call in orders for curbside pickup and placed a menu and instructions on the restaurant’s entrance. Unfortunately, many people didn’t read the messaging on the door and wandered inside. “People are used to being able to open the door and come in, so we did find a lot of times that we had to guide people back,” she says. Customers were mostly respectful when they were redirected.

Billups observed that people wearing masks seemed to intimidate staff and customers. Some employees also raised concerns about the safety of riding public transportation to work in Pontiac each day. “It just became an uncomfortable situation,” she says. “And the last thing I wanted to hear is that someone ended up with the coronavirus and it led back to them catching it in Flavors of Jamaica. I would just feel absolutely horrible.”

Flavors of Jamaica hopes to return soon. “We’ll make it. We’ll pull through. We all just got to follow the protocols, do what we can to remain safe, and remain strong,” Billups says, adding that she’s grateful that everyone has been so understanding throughout the crisis.

The empty storefront at Eli Tea features a walkup counter and containers filled with tea lining the walls behind the bar.
Eli Tea adopted more stringent sanitizing measures and rules for social distancing, but many customers didn’t follow the guidelines.
Stock Detroit

To Majid, keeping restaurants open for takeout and delivery is a tool being used to keep people from panicking. “Food keeps people calm,” he says, “but we’re really at risk with workers getting sick now.”

Before he closed, Majid recalls, one customer expressed how grateful they were that Eli Tea was still open because it gave them a sense of normalcy. But as Majid looked around at his employees scrambling to keep surfaces sanitized, he realized that nothing about the situation felt normal. “For the staff, we’re jumping over counters, we’re wiping down chairs, we’re scrubbing stuff down, just so we can continue service,” he says. “And it’s not okay for us. Our health is at risk.”

For now, Majid is focusing his energy on developing a new, safer system of mobile ordering and payment for his tea shop in the hopes of reopening in the next few weeks.

“Grocery stores need to be open,” he says. “We need supplies of food. But restaurants, I’m not sure if they need to be open.”

What Happens to New Restaurants Trying to Open in the Middle of a Pandemic? [ED]
What Michigan’s ‘Stay at Home’ Order Means for Restaurants and Bars [ED]
All Coronavirus Coverage [E]

Flavors of Jamaica

406 North Telegraph, , MI 48341 (947) 999-0169 Visit Website

Eli Tea Bar

108 South Old Woodward Avenue, , MI 48009 (248) 825-8064 Visit Website

Eli Tea

108 S Old Woodward Ave, Birmingham, MI 48009

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