Detroit restaurant owners are questioning the logic of a plan that the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association submitted to the governor by on Friday proposing that the state’s restaurants and bars be allowed to reopen for dine-in service by May 29 with precautions in place.
The 26-page Roadmap to Reopening proposal details ideas for new systems that restaurants could implement, such as screening employees for the virus, sanitizing dining rooms, and training employees on proper use of personal protective equipment. It also recommends laying out dining rooms for social distancing with seats six feet apart.
But in interviews with Eater, business owners across the city expressed trepidation about whether they could find enough workers willing to staff their dining rooms right now, let alone whether their dining rooms would be safe for customers and staff in a pandemic.
Among them is April Anderson, the owner of Good Cakes & Bakes, a bakery located along the Avenue of Fashion on Detroit’s Northwest side. “We don’t know enough about COVID to say it won’t come back,” Anderson says. “People are still getting new cases, people are still dying from it. So I don’t feel like it’s a good time to open back up,” she says in reaction to the MRLA’s proposed May 29 start date.
Anderson herself has lost an uncle to COVID-19, and several of her family members, including her mother, father, and grandmother, have tested positive for the disease, with her grandmother testing positive and negative several times. “We wouldn’t dare open our dining room that soon,” she says. “I really would prefer it would be once they had a vaccine, but I’ll go to the end of the summer when I know that there has been a flattening of new cases.”
During more normal times, Good Cakes & Bakes is considered a destination for the community to sit back and relax with a pastry and coffee. But business was already down thanks to construction last year, and with the onset of the pandemic Anderson committed to pivoting to online ordering with curbside service and delivery only. The switch was a more than modest success, Anderson says: “With our online [orders], delivery, and then some of the opportunities that we have received with offering catering and large orders, we’re at like 94 percent of our revenue pre-COVID.”
Anderson feels for other business owners who’ve had a difficult time transitioning to curbside pickup and carryout, but is also skeptical of their ability to bring minimum wage and tipped employees back to work under current conditions. “If a person is getting more money sitting at home [with unemployment benefits], why would you want them to lose benefits to come and work in your kitchen if you can’t give them the same hours that they were receiving before?” she says. “Just because you opened up, doesn’t mean that people are going to feel safe and comfortable to come.”
Greg Mudge, owner of Mudgie’s Deli and Wine Shop in Corktown, shares Anderson’s reservations. He shuttered his restaurant and wine bar shortly before the dine-in closure order was announced, but reopened last week selling sandwiches and groceries for curbside pickup. Mudge says he’s been pleasantly surprised by the interest in groceries and had to hire back more help, but has had trouble bringing in new employees.
And given the small amount of space in the dining room, Mudge can’t see how social distancing could work in his restaurant. “Bringing on servers and the amount of people that you need to operate a full-service situation to a 25 percent or 50 percent crowd doesn’t sound financially smart,” he says. Plus, using disposable utensils and cups also adds significant costs to food — something that’s already becoming more expensive due to supply chain issues. “Are you going to serve a fucking really nice bottle of wine in a plastic cup?” Mudge asks.
“It’s stressful enough, the way we’re operating right now,” he adds — even with staff and distributors using strict safety precautions like masks and gloves. “The virus is obviously slowing down here [in Detroit], but I don’t think that I would personally open my restaurant to the public right now, just on a safety level I wouldn’t do it.”
Matt Buskard, the owner of the multi-location gastropub Bobcat Bonnie’s, agrees that it would be difficult to manage a profitable restaurant under reduced capacity. Right now, Bobcat Bonnie’s is only operating in Ferndale, and only for curbside pickup. Buskard says his group is fortunate to have understanding landlords, but he fears that allowing restaurants to reopen for dine-in service might make small businesses even vulnerable to their landlords. Right now, businesses have a little more flexibility to negotiate because landlords are understanding about the dine-in closures and don’t wish to lose a tenant in a shaky economy. But if restaurants were allowed to reopen, Buskard says, landlords might take that as a signal to start asking for back rent again.
Buskard is also skeptical of taking guidance from anyone but medical experts at this time. “I don’t think that we should be listening to a restaurant organization or restaurant association in giving scientific guidance,” he says. “I think we need to follow what the scientists and the CDC and all of them recommend, and then even our local health departments, and then go beyond that.”
Buskard wishes there was more cohesive leadership at the top, along with more guidance for how businesses should operate. “What are the results from those states that are [reopening restaurants]?” he. “What does that look like and how do we keep our customers safe?”
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer did, in fact, release a six-phase plan for re-engaging the economy that addresses restaurants and bars on Thursday. The plan argues that the state needs to ramp up its testing and contact tracing efforts in addition to seeing steep decline in cases and deaths before reopening dining rooms.
In an interview with Eater on Friday afternoon, MRLA president and CEO Justin Winslow defended the reopening proposal as a necessary step in demonstrating how businesses could move forward.
The timing of the release wasn’t designed as a reaction to Whitmer’s plan, according to Winslow. He says that the guidance in the governor’s MI Safe Start Plan is “appreciated,” adding that “it’s first time we’ve seen any real guidances related to the restaurant industry specifically.” However, he thinks it fails in providing any clear timetables for the phases of reopening. (The governor’s office said in a statement to Eater today that Whitmer’s plan and future decisions would be based on “on science and data.”) But he believes that despite the complexity of the pandemic response, restaurant owners deserve more “clarity and direction for the industry to prepare.”
Winslow points to surrounding states, including Ohio and Indiana, that have already announced reopening timelines for restaurants. He believes that Michigan should have similar timelines to give restaurants adequate time to prepare. “This industry is going to need some level of hope to keep itself going,” he says. “There’s just no getting around the fact that [businesses in] this industry is closing up rate of 20-per-day in the state of Michigan in the month of May.”
Winslow admits there won’t be an “ideal, perfect” time to open in the pandemic. “There will be some challenging times and the industry knows that it’s incumbent upon them to make the case that they can operate safely and that people can come back to the restaurants and dine safely in their restaurants,” he says. “We really feel that the document we put out today is a demonstration that this industry is willing to meet excessive and high standards of safety and sanitation to help make the public feel safe.”
Matt Buskard understands why the MRLA is pushing for a reopening date in Michigan, because he’s heard many restaurant owners asking to be allowed to open at 50 percent capacity. But, he adds, “I also hear the flip side of the coin, where people are like, ‘Please don’t. That would be feeding us to the wolves. We couldn’t handle 50 percent.’”
One place where Buskard and Mudge seem to cautiously agree with the MRLA is on the issue of patios. Both expressed a willingness to potentially open their patios, without offering table service. For his part, Winslow says that his group is currently working with state and local leaders — including Detroit’s — to see how private businesses can work with the city to expand their cafe seating this summer. The group hopes measures like added outdoor seating will provide restaurant owners with some relief. “These are going to be challenging times,” he says. “We’re doing everything we can to mitigate some of that fallout.”
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.
• Restaurant Association Wants Michigan Dining Rooms to Reopen on May 29 [ED]
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