Service industry workers petition to extend closures in Washtenaw County over public health concerns

‘We are absolutely terrified,’ says petition organizer

FRANKLIN, TENNESSEE - APRIL 27: A waitress wearing rubber gloves and a mask is seen bringing out food for patrons at Puckett's Grocery & Restaurant on April 27, 2020 in Franklin, Tennessee. Tennessee is one of the first states to reopen restaurants after the onset of Covid-19. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images) ( , 2020 Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR – After launching a private Facebook group for service industry workers in the Ann Arbor area, Gabrielle Bussell said she was struck by a common theme shared by group members: the fear of returning to work.

She started the group on March 15 -- a day before Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order to temporarily close all bars and limit restaurants to delivery and carry-out. With nearly 2,500 members, the group held a round table discussion on June 3 after Whitmer announced dine-in services would resume.

“Everyone was feeling very nervous about reopening and afraid for their safety,” said Bussell. “The main issue is people can’t wear masks while they’re eating and drinking. Difficult and drunk customers aren’t going to follow these guidelines. Research also shows that A/C units can spread droplets around public buildings.”

Reading about states that have reopened and have seen a spike in cases also have people concerned over a potential second wave in Michigan.

As a result, the group launched a petition on Friday to present to the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners calling for the closure of dine-in service until the pandemic no longer presents a threat to public health.

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As of Tuesday morning, the petition had 700 signatures and the group is confident the petition will reach its goal of 1,000 signatures soon. Representatives from the group will be meeting with State Rep. Yousef Rabhi to share their concerns.

“The end goal for us would be for the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners to shut down dining service until the pandemic is no longer a threat to public health," she said. “(This means) when the number of cases is so low that the threat of community spread is extremely minimal. Even if we can’t get to that point, we need to make sure in the very least that workers are protected and that we know more about things. The Governor lifted the order and gave businesses and employees one week to prepare. I know many business owners were scrambling to get things together.”

Bussell works at Arbor Brewing Company’s Ann Arbor location, which recently shut down after announcing plans to relocate from its downtown location after 25 years. Employees at the brewpub have been offered positions at its Ypsilanti and Plymouth locations.

“They told us that if we aren’t comfortable coming back to pick up shifts yet, it’s fine,” she said.

However, for other service workers in the area, this is not the case.

“A lot of people are getting an ultimatum by their employers," she said. “This is where a lot of the anxiety is coming from. (They are) taking away unemployment benefits or taking away jobs. The majority of employers have not been doing much at all offering hazard pay. People are not being very understanding.”

Bussell acknowledged that not all business owners are the same and knows of several who are choosing to wait to reopen due to worker safety concerns or operational limitations under the new safety guidelines.

“I’d love to reach out and get them behind the cause," she said. "I’d love to work together with our government to help get these small businesses support. I don’t want to see small businesses go under, either.”

Still, many service industry members in the area report feeling dispensable and underappreciated, she said, and are questioning the cost of reopening versus people’s safety.

“There are essential businesses out there that should stay open but people definitely don’t need to sit down and have a beer or dinner during a pandemic,” said Bussell. “We don’t think it’s worth it.”

To see the petition, click here.

About the Author:

Meredith has worked for WDIV since August 2017 and was voted one of Washtenaw County's best journalists in 2019 by eCurrent's readers. She covers the community of Ann Arbor and has a Master's degree in International Broadcast Journalism from City University London, UK.