Whitmer asking diners to take a 2-week break from indoor dining called 'misguided'

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Melody Baetens, The Detroit News
·6 min read
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Apr. 9—Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's decision to seek a voluntary two-week hiatus on indoor dining to blunt a surge in coronavirus infections is "misguided" and doesn't track with the data, says a Michigan restaurant business advocacy group.

Whitmer didn't reinstate a ban on indoor dining in light of COVID-19 cases surging in Michigan, as some thought she would. Instead, she appealed directly to diners to not eat inside restaurants for a brief period starting today.

"To be very clear, these are not orders, mandates or requirements," Whitmer said of her requests, which also urged schools to suspend in-person classes and youth sports for two weeks. "A year in, we all know what works and this has to be a team effort. We have to do this together. Lives depend on it."

Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant Lodging Association, called Whitmer's suggestion "misguided."

"While we support and echo the governor's call for a surge of vaccines to be prioritized for Michigan, we believe her suggested recommendation around indoor dining is misguided and doesn't track with available data," he said in a statement Friday. While the state is experiencing an unfortunate surge in COVID-19 cases, he said only 0.3% of the cases investigated involved restaurant patrons.

"In accordance with CDC guidance, those fully vaccinated ... can safely dine indoors if they wear a well-fitted mask and maintain physical distance," he said. " As we approach a herd immunity in Michigan that will transform the hospitality industry for the better, it is incumbent on us all to act with common sense and proper precaution. But the continued scapegoating of the restaurant industry without proof or reliable data won't make it come any sooner."

As of Thursday, 25% of residents aged 16 or older were fully vaccinated, according to state data.

Maddy O'Donnell, 24, of Auburn Hills agrees that restaurants aren't the cause of the spread. She goes out to eat once or twice a week whenever she doesn't feel like cooking. She's only felt uncomfortable when the restaurant was over the capacity limits.

"If it's a crowded restaurant I do feel weird sometimes," she said. "I have left a couple restaurants before when I'm just seated right directly next to people."

She attributes the surge to the spring breakers who are coming back from vacation in other states like Florida: "And it's like the college students who are going to bars now that they're open," she said. "I don't think restaurants are like a huge issue. I don't see the difference between going to like a restaurant or going to a store."

Before Whitmer's announcement Friday, Detroit resident Christina Skop was wondering if the indoor dining ban would return with cases of COVID-19 rising in the state. She's careful about where she eats, choosing businesses that follow the pandemic-related protocols, she said, but isn't planning on changing her dining plans Friday afternoon in Corktown following Whitmer's plea.

"I have been dining out and plan on it later today," she said. "I'm going to Hygrade Deli. They are following the rules and I love the staff."

Also in Corktown, Mudgie's Deli owner Greg Mudge and his customers aren't affected by Whitmer's suggestion because he never felt comfortable opening his indoor dining area since the pandemic started.

Instead, he offers carryout through a pickup window, and guests are welcome to stay and enjoy gourmet sandwiches, salads and drinks on the adjacent patio. The city has also shut down part of Brooklyn street to allow for more outdoor space near Mudgie's.

"I'm not trying to crush on other restaurants that want to open up," he said. "But I've never thought it was safe yet, and in my plan that I made ... at the beginning of this I didn't see this going away until maybe a couple years. I was prepared, in my head, to keep this dining room closed and operate as carryout and outside-only for a couple years."

Caucus Club owner George Sboukis' only option to serve customers is to have them dine inside. The historic, fine dining restaurant is about the dine-in experience and there's no outdoor patio. He said he's not concerned that the steakhouse will lose any reservations over Whitmer's urging diners to not dine indoors.

"Talking to some of the diners that were here yesterday and their mood and their mindset, it doesn't sound like we're going to have much of that," he said. "I'm not worried about it ... people are getting vaccinated at a very good clip, I feel like. My wife and I have both eclipsed two weeks since our second shot of Moderna and a lot of the guests are telling me the same thing."

Sboukis has bigger problems than a voluntary two-week indoor dining ban. He's been short-staffed throughout the pandemic, and with indoor dining still at just 50% capacity, he's had to navigate guests who linger at the table so much that it sometimes bleeds into the time frame of the next reservation.

"We lost a lot of key people," he said Friday afternoon as he was baking bread for the evening dinner service. "So now I'm the butcher, the baker, and if we made candlesticks I would do that, too. That's what owners have to do — keep plugging holes."

Another way the coronavirus is affecting local restaurants is the rise in positive COVID-19 cases among staff members.

Out of "an abundance of caution" Mudge closed his restaurant on Thursday because an employee contracted the virus. Mudgie's is one of several Metro Detroit restaurants that took to social media this week to let customers know they would be closing for a day or more for testing and cleaning because of a positive case.

In Midtown, the Peterboro restaurant and adjacent food hall, Detroit Shipping Company, were both closed Friday after an employee tested positive. Last month several area restaurants — including Founders Taproom in Detroit, Hazel Ravines and Downtown in Birmingham, Voyager in Ferndale — paused service for the same reason.

Other businesses are temporarily closed not because of a positive test, but due to short staffing. Neighborhood bar and restaurant Gilbert's Lodge in St. Clair Shores alerted customers this week that it is closed through Saturday because of an employee shortage.

mbaetens@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @melodybaetens

Staff writer Kalea Hall contributed.