Michigan restaurants and bars are still not allowed to offer indoor dining, but Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and state health officials said Wednesday that indoor exercise classes and some non-contact sports will be allowed to resume soon.

2 RESTAURANTS CLOSING

Jeff Schwander, Dan Van Dine, waitress Nichole Appel and Jim Knoll are shown at the Stable Inn in West Olive in November, a few days prior to the temporary public health orders to ban indoor dining in Michigan’s restaurants took effect.

While Whitmer stressed COVID-19 remains a deadly threat to the entire state, the concept of not being allowed to sit down and eat inside a restaurant during a pandemic has caused considerable outcry from many around the state.

“We are reopening cautiously because caution is working to save lives,” said state health department Director Robert Gordon in a news release. “The new order allows group exercise and non-contact sports, always with masks and social distancing, because in the winter it’s not as easy to get out and exercise, and physical activity is important for physical and mental health.”

“We are glad that we made it through the holidays without a big increase in numbers, but there are also worrying signs in the new numbers,” he added. “We need to remain focused and continue to see declines in hospitalizations and to bring case rates and percent positivity down by doing what we know works.”

The updated order goes into effect Saturday and runs through the end of the month.

Initially enacted in November, the state health order set to expire after Friday covered much more than just indoor dining. It bans household gatherings that involve more than 10 people, and instituted operating restrictions on a litany of businesses can operate. However, an update to the order in December allowed high schools and colleges to again provide in-person classes and some sports; while casinos, bowling alleys and other similar venues could open with restrictions.

As of Wednesday, more than 13,500 Michiganders had died from the disease caused by the coronavirus. More than 528,000 people reported having COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.

Although millions of Michiganders are now eligible to receive a vaccine, administrative and distribution challenges at the federal, state and local level have created challenges and delayed injecting doses in the arms of ready and willing residents.

Many critics of the state pandemic orders are quick to point to the businesses that have closed and the thousands of residents who have lost their jobs or wages during the pandemic. While Republicans and other critics blame the governor and state for those economic challenges, Whitmer and state officials argue the pandemic itself is to blame and orders are crafted to save lives.

Andiamo restaurateurs Joe and Rosalie Vicari, two of the dining ban’s most vocal opponents, said they were disappointed by the news of its extension.

“It’s a big blow,” Joe Vicari said. “We were told by the governor, ‘Let’s see how things go through the holidays and maybe we’ll open you up sooner. ... Now we were all assuming we’d be able to open up on the 15th. And one of her reasonings for saying she wants to extend it to February is to give us time to get our food chain and vendors to get us our product. Well, leave that to our vendors and us because the vendors are biting at the bit. The people that want to be open will be open on the 15th. So that’s a weak excuse.”

The Vicaris, who own more than two dozen restaurants in metro Detroit including multiple locations of Andiamo and Joe Muer Seafood, called on local restaurants to defy the ban in late November before changing course and softening their stance a week later.

“We were closed and the reason we were closed, supposedly, is because you have to take your mask off to eat,” Rosalie Vicari said. “But every single mall in the state was open and every single food court was open, so people would go to the food court and randomly walk around the mall eating with their masks off. The hypocrisy of that is just so great that we as restaurateurs can’t grasp it.”

The Vicaris said staff members were scheduled and ready to work Friday.

Steven Goldberg of The Stage Deli in West Bloomfield is thrilled, though with trepidation, to reopen Feb. 1.

“It’s important to lick this virus,” Goldberg said. “The virus hasn’t changed fully yet, but I am encouraged out the reductions in numbers in Michigan. Although it’s been very challenging times as a result of the closure it was the right thing to do.”

Goldberg is excited to have the option get his full staff, which includes his family, back to work.

“I think with the protocols that we have in place we can reopen safely and successfully,” he said. “I feel pretty good about the safety of the restaurant.”

Early on in the pandemic, Goldberg invested in a state-of-the-art filtration system and a state-of-the art air treatment system. The system, he said, emits ionized hydrogen peroxide particles that kill viruses and germs on contact.

The change to the order that would allow indoor fitness classes will have a real impact. Marie Konwinski said that previous restrictions have crippled her yoga studio, Wild Flower Yoga in Richmond.

“The specific ban on our business doesn’t make sense scientifically and it’s just hurting our chances of making it through this pandemic.”

Republicans in the state Legislature blasted the announcement.

“Today’s announcement is another display of the tone-deaf response we continue to hear from the governor. Overreach by the governor has crippled an entire industry and peripheral supply chain businesses,” said Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake. “Further, the notion that she can select a perfect time for restaurants to open as opposed to allowing these local businesses to open when they are ready, continues the ‘government knows best’ attitude from the executive branch that is causing people and capital to leave Michigan.”

In a statement Wednesday, Senate Appropriations Chairman Rick Stamas, R-Midland, suggested the Legislature should block any appointments to state boards or committees until Whitmer ends the ban on in-person dining.

In the statement, Stamas inaccurately argues the governor has closed restaurants. State health orders do not prevent restaurants from offering takeout or delivery services, although some restaurants argue they cannot afford to stay open without dine-in options.

“As long as the governor rejects the importance of thousands of restaurants and small businesses she continues to shut down, then we should reject her appointments,” Stamas said in a news release. “My goal with this proposal is to bring the governor to the table on COVID-19 issues and understand that the Legislature plays an important role in our representative government.”

News of the extension started to trickle out Tuesday, with a Facebook post from the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association indicating restaurants may be allowed to offer indoor service next month.

“The impact of this industry is past the tipping point,” Scott Ellis, executive director of the MLBA, told the Free Press on Tuesday. “We’ve tipped.”

Noting thousands of restaurants have closed permanently, Ellis added, “Every time this goes on longer the more will close.”

Employees who lost their jobs or money due to the pandemic order from November can start applying Friday for a state grant, the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association announced Tuesday.

Grants of up to $1,650 are available for eligible Michigan workers – while MRLA said anyone who is eligible and successfully applies will receive some funding, the fact that 70,000 people are expected to apply and only $45 million is available indicates many people will receive less than the full grant amount.

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