Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order permitting limited reopening of Michigan bars and restaurants elicited a mixed response from the Detroit bar community. Although some are eager to throw open their doors and welcome the public for the first time in months, others are urging caution. With less than one week to make arrangements, many have spent the hours since Monday’s announcement scrambling to gather staff input, restock inventory, and implement safety protocols.
Under the executive order, bars and restaurants across the state are allowed to open for business again at 50 percent capacity with at least six feet of social distance between groups. All establishments must develop a COVID-19 plan and train their staff on safety protocols and procedures to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Service staff are required to wear face coverings such as a mask.
Within hours of Whitmer’s press conference on Monday afternoon, popular Corktown party spot Nancy Whiskey’s Pub announced a “St. Patrick’s Day, Tigers Opening Day, and Cinco De Mayo, party ALL week long!!” via their Facebook page. Owner Gerald Stevens confirmed that the bar will open “by noon” on Monday, June 8, including both the interior bar and the large outdoor patio. Nancy Whiskey’s “will adhere to all the governor’s restrictions set in place and to the social distancing order,” Stevens says. “We have plenty of room outside on the patio and can’t wait to welcome everyone back.”
Hamtramck’s High Dive will also begin operation next week, starting with limited days and hours, Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. Owner David Lew, also known as mural artist Shark Toof, had just begun planning for Techno Take Away nights before shifting gears to line up DJs and bartenders. With 2,300 square feet of space and two open-air patios, “[there’s] plenty of room to social distance with even more room at half capacity,” says Lew. He’s confident the bar will be able to open back up. “We have massive front patio windows that will be open [the] majority of the time to allow fresh air flow,” he adds. Lew also stresses that “cleanliness is the High Dive’s standard and reputation,” and surfaces and points of contact as well as equipment will be disinfected frequently.
Bar staff interviewed by Eater agreed that surface cleaning is essential for public safety, but that is nothing new for most servers and bartenders, who must practice food safety at all times to the prevent spread of germs — not just novel coronavirus. Jimmy Doom, a Detroit freelance bartender, is ready to get back to work. “If someone can do brain surgery for 12 hours in a mask,” he says, “I can bartend for eight in one.” He does worry, though, about overly exuberant customers let loose at bars for the first time in months. “I think bars need to be very conscious about having extra security,” he says, to protect against customers’ potential “spring breakish-jailbreak type of attitude. But I’m still willing to work.”
Jessica, who works at a bar in Southwest Detroit and asked Eater to withhold her last name, isn’t so sure reopening is a great idea. Her bar owners are still working out what to do, she says, and even if they do decide to open right away, she doesn’t plan to go back until she has more information. “While I do miss and need the money,” she admits, “I do not feel society is ready for this. I’ve seen pictures of the bars in other states. I’m not ready for that chaos and the havoc it is going to cause.”
Shannon Lowell owns Cafe 1923 coffee house in Hamtramck as well as Donovan’s Pub in Southwest Detroit. He’s not about to jump into opening without careful consideration, he says. There are far too many variables at stake. “The governor told us to turn everything off, which we did, and now she’s saying, ‘No, turn everything on.’ It’s not that easy.” Lowell points out that bars such as Donovan’s have overhead such as liquor inventory, equipment operating costs, and massive electric bills to take into account. “As soon as we turn this machine back on, it puts the overhead back up to peak volume [levels], and I’m not able to generate enough income to cover the overhead” while operating at half-capacity, Lowell says.
Bars that do decide to reopen on June 8 will have to work fast to restock. So will the warehouses and suppliers tasked with providing beer and wine for bars. Paul Quasarano, president of Eastown Distributors, says his company is prepared for the influx. “I don’t foresee any difficulties in the supply chain to meet the near term demand,” he says. “We have inventory within code on hand and more fresh product on the way.”
For Larry Mongo, owner of the popular downtown Cafe d’Mongo’s Speakeasy, the decision to not reopen now was made by his staff. Since they’ll be the ones there most of the time, he says, he let them decide it wasn’t time yet. “It’s not just my call. It’s their call,” he says. He and his staff conducted a test, with about 10 people all wearing masks in their normal bar positions. “What scared me is that after about a half hour, we were comfortable,” he says. “We started to forget about the virus, pulled down our masks, and started talking to each other. We said, ‘What’s going to happen when people start drinking? Maybe they’ve had a little too much to drink, and they start coming right up to your face?’
“I understand what the governor is doing, but I’m mainly on the side of science,” says Mongo. “And trust me, I’m taking a loss.” He adds: “I’m too small of a place. We only hold 88 people. When you tell me 50 percent and everybody has to be six feet apart, you’re talking maybe only 20 people [inside the bar]. I can’t even think about reopening until we’re talking 80 percent [capacity] or better.”
Many smaller bars in Michigan have a maximum capacity listing of 49 persons, a fire department safety requirement. Operating at half that capacity would mean the maximum number of people allowed in the bar caps out at 25 people. That number is just too small to justify opening back up for some smaller bars, especially those without giant patios already in place.
“It’ll be starting from scratch. It’s reinventing yourself,” says Lowell. “The corner bar I have is ill-equipped to function in this post-COVID era.” Like many other bar owners deciding not to reopen quite yet, Lowell is also worried about the safety of his staff and customers at both the coffee shop and the bar. “These people are my friends and my neighbors,” he says. “I would feel horrible if my space was the vector in the neighborhood that got everybody sick.” For now, he says, it’s just not worth the risk.
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.