Over the last nine months of the pandemic, I’ve spoken to dozens of business owners around Michigan and across the United States about the plight of restaurants and bars. I’ve also talked to the servers, chefs, musicians, and performers that sustain them. Nearly all of them have been very clear about what is vital to their ability to make ends meet and recover during this extremely difficult period of time in our economy. They don’t need loans. They don’t want to reopen if it’s unsafe. What they need is financial assistance and relief, but no one with the power to make that happen seems to be listening.
There’s no getting around the fact that people in kitchens tend to work in small spaces side by side, or that servers and bartenders have to interact regularly with unmasked people outside their household — some of whom become violently angry when asked to mask up. These are the exact situations where COVID-19 seeds new cases. It sucks. Nobody likes it, but it’s the truth. A federal judge has now agreed with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services that indoor dining is far riskier than going to a department store in a mask. It’s also true that many restaurants and bars cannot get by on takeout and delivery alone — not when third-party apps are taking 30 percent of the ticket price, not when the cost of doing business has gone up, and not while people are tightening their own personal budgets out of fear that they or a loved one may become sick or get laid off unexpectedly.
This has led some to the conclusion that the only option is to defy the state epidemic orders, which are designed to help everyone make it through this terrible pandemic that’s claiming thousands of lives a day. Many of these business owners describe it rather cavalierly as the only choice for “survival.” But while we may come to love restaurants and bars, they’re not people. Their death is a metaphorical one. The deaths of people claimed by COVID-19, and the lives irreparably damaged by the long-term effects of this disease, are not. To the owners and people that help run them, restaurants may be the culmination of a lifelong dream or a family legacy and closing can be a tragic loss. But this anger, and the false narrative that the only way restaurants can move forward is to ignore health and safety officials, is misdirected and damaging to any effort to improve our collective situation.
It’s not merely a matter of personal choice, as though risk is limited to individuals who choose to go to restaurants, while those who stay home are protected. Such libertarian logic disregards the plight of workers who must be there to serve customers and, more obviously, denies the way this virus works. In recent weeks, trade groups and business owners have pointed to outbreak data as evidence that restaurants aren’t part of the COVID-19 problem. They twist and misinterpret the numbers to make the situation appear better than it is, and argue that sanitizing makes indoor dining unmasked in a distanced room with people from other households somehow safe. This reckless hygiene theater is dangerous and breeds a false sense of safety.
In August, Eater Detroit began tracking COVID-19 outbreaks at restaurants and bars based on weekly data provided by the state. The data was pretty good, but it’s not perfect, and the state admits that and is treating it as such. While the numbers couldn’t possibly capture every outbreak or case (for that, the state would need a much more robust contact tracing system), it did provide a benchmark for where we were in the summer, when COVID-19 counts were relatively low and COVID-19 protocols were somewhat less restrictive.
What that data shows is that the number of outbreaks associated with restaurants and bars has steadily climbed since the end of the summer, when people began retreating indoors and partaking in holiday celebrations. Trade groups will tell you that the restaurant and bar percentage of all reported outbreaks in the state has hovered somewhere between 2.7 percent and 10.5 percent since the week of August 20. On its face, that looks proportionally small compared to the percentage of outbreaks in other settings, like social gatherings. However, the total number of reported outbreaks at restaurants and bars was 19 during the week of August 20; by the week of November 12, that number had nearly tripled to 54 recorded outbreaks. A week later, there were 65 reported outbreaks. If just two people became ill from each outbreak, that’s 130 new cases seeding in a public setting and being brought home to expose even more people. We know these outbreaks can grow quite large, because we have examples. Early in the summer, a Harper’s in East Lansing became the site of a widely publicized outbreak that sickened approximately 188 people across multiple counties.
We do know, and have known for months, what is effective at slowing the spread: staying home, wearing a mask when you have to leave, and limiting interactions with people outside of your household. But when the state allows businesses to remain open, even at limited capacity, in spaces like restaurant dining rooms where masks are off, it’s implicitly saying, “This is safe.”
Public health experts are well aware of the trade-offs here. They know that closing dining rooms will hurt restaurants and the people that work in them financially and make life harder in the short term, but they also know that it will send a signal that that particular behavior is not worth the risk in this moment.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s leadership hasn’t been perfect in 2020. The rules served up at a moment’s notice to restaurant owners have been extremely difficult to navigate, even for people who are closely following the twists and turns of the state’s COVID-19 response. More could have been done to prepare business owners ahead of time for this frighteningly difficult winter. And when that winter surge finally arrived, the Department of Health and Human Services could have done a better job of communicating those new restrictions. However, by defying state orders and attacking the health department, these restaurateurs are putting economics before the lives of themselves, their workers, and their customers. This action is selfish and rewards the few by allowing them to illegally profit off the attention and press of standing up against some mythical tyranny. The media plays into this by focusing attention on those who aren’t following the rules, instead of the many who are — and who are disturbed by what others in the industry are doing.
We should be praising temporary sacrifice and rewarding it with the promise of money to see people through their time of need. The actual threat is allowing the virus to win and permitting the federal government to continue to withhold urgently needed bailout funds while proposing unacceptable alternatives.
Now, because of forces outside of her administration’s direct control, like the lack of renewed federal assistance and the chaos of a Republican-held state legislature that seems hellbound to reopen no matter the consequences to the long-term health of Michiganders, the governor’s team of medical experts is being dragged down by trying to satisfy people who won’t be satisfied with anything less than a full reopening. Telling people they can’t do what they want to do because it’s not safe is not a politically favorable position to be in. And ultimately, it results in timid half-measures to control the virus and creates distractions in a fast-moving and extremely precarious situation.
If businesses and citizens were provided with the appropriate relief they needed to avoid financial catastrophe and stay closed, Michigan could start to beat back this virus in unity without anxiety over lost income or lost lives. It’s sickening to watch businesses struggling and closing and workers seeking food assistance as the United States prepares to release the first batch of vaccines — something that could help the service industry return to normal in a much safer way.
So what can we do? Instead of wasting our energy on petty social media bickering and taking stands that won’t actually improve the lives of small-business owners and their employees long term, we should be focusing our attention on demanding the relief that everyone deserves. We could be contacting our lawmakers and people in the federal government and urging them to take care of our neighbors. Michigan can continue to keep dining rooms closed and support the people and individuals who are trying their best to keep us safe. We can also push for our state legislature to pass the temporary relief that this crisis demands and the mask mandate that our exhausted health experts believe would help. And we should push them to demand the same from our federal government. Our nation and our state will be better off in 12 months’ time if it invests in saving the places we have and the people who work in them now.