Two shutdowns, partial reopenings: How Michigan restaurants have been handled during COVID pandemic

Second ban on indoor dining expires Monday

A Michigan restaurant's "closed" sign.
A Michigan restaurant's "closed" sign.

Restaurants have been the most hotly debated topic of Michigan’s shutdowns throughout the COVID pandemic.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services have twice shut down indoor dining, with the most recent ban ending Monday (Feb. 1).

READ: Looking back at 110 stories that define Gov. Whitmer’s handling of COVID-19 in Michigan in 2020

Here’s a look at how restaurants have been handled throughout the pandemic.

First shutdown

Michigan restaurants were first shut down March 16, 2020, as the state confirmed its 50th case of COVID-19.

Whitmer had originally banned gatherings of 250 or more people three days prior, but state officials said some bars and restaurants weren’t following that order.

Restaurants were still allowed to offer take-out and delivery orders, but no customers could eat inside.

This shutdown was originally supposed to last two weeks, until the end of March. Instead, a statewide stay-at-home order was issued eight days later, and nobody was allowed to leave their homes for three weeks, except for reasons outlined by MDHHS.

The stay-at-home order was extended in early April. Then again later in the month. All the while, restaurants remained shuttered.

A third extension in early May sparked controversy among residents and state legislators, and struggling restaurants were a big part of that backlash.

Restaurants reopen in Northern Michigan

As part of Whitmer’s reopening plan, the Upper Peninsula and Traverse City Regions of the state met certain thresholds in late May that allowed restaurants to resume in-person dining.

On May 22, restaurants in those two regions were allowed to reopen at 50% capacity, as long as servers wore masks and customers kept six feet of distance between themselves and other parties.

Meanwhile, that very afternoon, just before the start of Memorial Day Weekend, Whitmer extended the stay-at-home order once again, ensuring restaurants in the other six geographic regions would remain closed until June 12.

In-person dining resumes statewide

As COVID-19 numbers trended downward across the state, Whitmer lifted the stay-at-home order early, allowing restaurants and bars to reopen June 8.

Restaurants in the Lower Peninsula faced the same restrictions as those in Northern Michigan.

Relieved business owners scrambled to get back to some semblance of normal after months of grappling with financial and staffing issues.

Though Whitmer continued to extend her state of emergency, restaurants remained open for nearly six months. They weren’t linked to many specific COVID-19 outbreaks, though experts insisted the process of indoor dining was inherently risky.

Now-former MDHHS Director Robert Gordon said the reason restaurants are such a great threat to spreading the virus is because people from different households gather indoors and take off their masks.

But even as MDHHS took over the state’s COVID-19 restrictions after the Michigan Supreme Court ruled Whitmer couldn’t issue orders without legislative approval, restaurants remained open into November.

Bars banned from indoor services

As Michigan’s COVID-19 cases began to spike late in June and into July, Whitmer shut them down in every region outside of the Upper Peninsula and the Traverse City Region.

It was Michigan’s first step backward in the reopening process, but it certainly wouldn’t be its last.

As a silver lining, Michigan bars and restaurants were given clearance to deliver alcoholic beverages, sell them to-go and offer two-for-one deals.

‘Pause’ shuts down indoor dining again

The second restaurant shutdown went into effect Nov. 18, after Michigan’s case rate reached by far its highest point of the pandemic. More than 9,000 new cases were reported on multiple days, so MDHHS stepped in to issue a “pause” on certain segments of the economy.

Like the stay-at-home order, this pause allowed customers to order carry-out or delivery, but banned indoor dining at restaurants and bars. Businesses could offer indoor dining, but with winter weather in full force, that wasn’t a realistic option for most.

The pause was set to last three weeks. It was extended 12 days in early December, then again through the middle of January. While the second extension included loosened restrictions for some types of businesses, indoor dining was not allowed.

In the midst of the pause, the owners of Andiamo wrote a letter urging restaurants to defy the restrictions and reopen. They later backtracked.

“We need to band together and fight this closure,” Joe Vicari wrote. “Our industry cannot survive another long-term closure. We are stronger if we stand together and use our strength of fight back.”

Over the next months, Andiamo was one of dozens of restaurants to have their liquor licenses suspended after state officials said they violated COVID-19 protocols.

On Jan. 13, MDHHS extended the pause once again through the end of January, allowing more physical activities to resume, but keeping restaurants from welcoming in customers.

For the first time since the start of the pause, however, Michigan officials offered a glimmer of hope to restaurant owners. Whitmer suggested restaurants could reopen soon, perhaps even earlier than the most recent extension.

Most recent reopening

Gordon and Whitmer announced Jan. 22 that restaurants would be allowed to resume indoor dining, albeit with more strict rules in place.

Restaurants and bars will be allowed to reopen at 25% capacity, with up to 100 people total. Tables must be six feet apart, with no more than six people per table. Outdoor tents with four sides are permitted under the same rules.

Bars and restaurants have to close by 10 p.m. and contact information must be collected from diners for contact tracing purposes.

The revised order went into effect Monday (Feb. 1) as vaccine distribution continues and COVID-19 numbers decline across the state.

Restaurants are officially allowed to reopen at 25% capacity until 10 p.m., with the other normal COVID-19 safety procedures in place.


About the Author:

Derick is a Senior Web Producer for ClickOnDetroit and has been with Local 4 News since April 2013. Derick specializes in breaking news, crime and local sports.