On Monday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer surprised businesses in popular tourist destinations around Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula by announcing that restaurants and bars could return to regular dine-in service at 50 percent capacity on Friday, May 22. That left restaurants and bars with just four days to come up with safety protocols, restock, rehire staff, and rearrange seating to comply with state requirements ahead of a busy holiday weekend, and the loosening of social distancing received a decidedly mixed reaction among regional businesses.
As news of the partial reopening spread, restaurants and bars turned to social media to share their plans with customers. The Iron Pig Smokehouse in Gaylord, Petoskey Brewing, and Green Bird Organic Cellars & Farm in Northport each shared enthusiastic messages with followers that they would be reopening Friday. Terrain Restaurant in Bellaire also plans to reopen on Friday as the dine-in closure order lifts in the region; however, the experience at the restaurant will be different than customers are used to. Co-owner Shana Minish tells the Traverse City Record Eagle that Terrain will likely open with a smaller menu due to challenges with food distribution.
Austin Brothers Beer Company shared similar concerns about supply chain issues and plans to remain open for carryout only throughout Memorial Day weekend. In a Facebook post addressing customers, the company states that its carryout menu has been changing “almost daily” throughout the public health crisis: “While we like to spice things up, we’re doing this to accommodate the major food chain supply shortage. Some items have become completely unavailable, prices of other items have tripled in the matter of a few days. Being flexible with our menu has allowed us to keep things affordable for you, but this makes it hard to offer food for a larger customer base.” The brewery says it would also struggle to reopen its taproom immediately due to the fact that it packaged most of its beer in cans for carryout sales, and has a limited supply in kegs available for indoor service.
Amanda Danielson, a co-owner of popular Italian restaurant Trattoria Stella in Traverse City, expressed cautious optimism about reopening Friday, given that the region hasn’t been hit hard by the pandemic. But, as Danielson points out to the Detroit News, many people from regions with more significant outbreaks often travel Up North during the summer tourist season. “We’ve had very few cases relatively speaking, which why we’re able to reopen, but at the same time the people that come here are from high-infected areas,” she says. The restaurant plans to only seat customers with reservations.
Short’s Brewing in Bellaire is also planning to reopen with a socially distanced dining room, though founder Joe Short cautions that staffing could be an issue, since the business had to let go of a large portion of its regular staff due to the pandemic.
Fellow Traverse City destination the Cooks’ House is electing to remain closed, with the exception of takeout, until June 16. “Out of an abundance of caution, we are going to wait and see how reopening the Traverse City area goes,” the restaurant writes in a post to Facebook followers. “We want to put the safety and health of our staff first. Our plan is to take a short break during the first week of June, and then come back to prepare the restaurant for dine-in guests.”
Others are opting to continue offering curbside service or remaining closed for the time being. Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate in Empire shared reticence about reopening businesses for face-to-face service: “We miss being open to help you choose a truffle [...] But we’re not going to re-open the shop until we feel safe to do so. We support Governor Whitmer’s difficult decisions and the science of the CDC but, ultimately, we don’t feel ready to open the shop, even limited capacity. The safety of our community is the most important thing to us.”
While restaurants in Michigan were permitted to remain open for carryout and delivery service, dining rooms have been closed since March 16. The current dine-in closure executive order is due to expire with the wider stay-at-home order on May 28 — though there’s still a strong chance it could be extended. Meanwhile, the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association submitted a plan earlier this month to the governor’s office, requesting that Whitmer allow the dine-in closure order to expire so that restaurants can return to business with added precautions. Some Detroit-area restaurant owners have questioned whether that timeline is feasible or responsible due to issues with hiring, financial constraints, and the safety of staff and customers.
The reopening of Northern Michigan and the U.P. seems to be a test of whether that plan is feasible. In addition to requiring businesses to operate at 50 percent capacity, they must also create and follow a plan to provide COVID-19 training to workers. Local governments can also impose tighter restrictions on businesses.
Officials in Traverse City tell the Detroit Free Press they’re looking forward to the boost that summer tourism could bring to regional businesses and a plan is underway to shutdown some streets to traffic and allow for more socially distant outdoor dining. Still, City Manager Marty Colburn is urging tourists to be careful and cognizant of their health. “We want people to get out and have a good, enjoyable time — have a life — but on the other side of it, make sure we help protect each other’s lives because this virus has not gone away.”
Eater is tracking the impact of the novel coronavirus on the local food industry. Have a story to share? Reach out at email@example.com.
• Restaurants, Retailers Welcome News [Traverse City Record Eagle]
• Businesses in Northern Michigan, UP Move Cautiously Toward Reopening [Detroit News]
• Traverse City Eyes Closing Front Street Downtown to Cars as Businesses Plan to Reopen [Freep]
• Restaurants and Bars in Northern Michigan, Upper Peninsula Can Reopen on May 22 [ED]
• All Coronavirus Coverage [E]