Photo courtesy the Office of the Governor Photo courtesy the Office of the Governor

New safety precautions to prevent a resurgence of the coronavirus are on the menu as Michigan restaurants resume indoor dining.

GREENVILLE, Mich.—Hop Hog Backyard Brew Pub is hosting its grand opening Monday. The date wasn’t chosen at random. Monday, Feb. 1 is the reopening of restaurant and concession services in Michigan. 

Restaurants have had a rough time during the coronavirus pandemic. Reopening and reclosing again in reaction to the ebb and flow of the virus’ spread throughout the state has been a hard balancing act, both for state health officials and restaurants. And opening a new business during this time is especially challenging. 

“We had numerous shipping issues from many different things. There has been lots of obstacles, but we’ve got a really good leadership team that’s really helped bring this all together,” David Harvey, the general manager of Hop Hog told WOOD

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After two and a half months of a pause in certain sectors of the economy, instituted in reaction to a sharp spike in daily cases of the coronavirus spread late last fall, Michigan businesses providing indoor food can open again, with certain safety precautions in place. 

“While we must remain vigilant and cautious, we can lift some protocols that were previously in place,” said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. “I know this pandemic has hurt our restaurant owners, our restaurant workers, and all of their families. I want to thank those that made incredible sacrifices and did their part.”

Reopening will require certain safety precautions. Restaurants will be limited to only 25% indoor dining capacity and will have a curfew of 10 p.m. Customers must also give their contact information to restaurant staff so they can be notified in case of potential exposure. 

One reason the dining industry has had such challenges remaining open is the necessity it presents being maskless indoors. That poses a much higher risk for COVID-19 transmission and superspreader events have been linked to indoor dining during the pandemic, including a pub in East Lansing in June whose single-day spread reached metro Detroit. 

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Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive, reiterated that being indoors without a mask is riskier, and discouraged indoor dining when possible.

“The safest thing to do is to not eat inside a restaurant,” she said, especially if someone is elderly, has an underlying medical condition, or lives with someone who is elderly or has underlying conditions. “But we still want you to order from them, though. You can support them with takeout, delivery, or dining outdoors.”

Graphic by Denzel Boyd.

But the state is also taking measures to improve the ability for restaurants to address the problems posed by indoor dining. Food establishments can voluntarily take part in a new state ventilation-inspection program, through which they would be certified as optimizing airflow. Whitmer has asked the Republican-led Legislature to authorize funding to reimburse restaurants that participate.

This, along with the eventual inoculation of hospitality workers against the coronavirus, sets the groundwork in place for a full return to dining in the future, though the path may not be straightforward. Gov. Whitmer has resisted setting specific milestones for phases of reopening because of the unpredictability of the pandemic. A new variant of the virus that is far more infectious has recently been found in Michigan that could alter any specific goals announced at this point if it takes root and becomes part of the battle between health officials and the disease, for instance. 

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Gov. Whitmer also credits the December and January drops in daily new cases to practices like the pause in in-door dining being effective at preventing viral transmission. Though infection rates remain high compared to late summer 2020, new diagnoses are on a downward trend going into February 2021.

“Our action saved our hospital systems from getting overwhelmed. Our action saved lives,” she said.

As part of the same order that allowed Hop Hog to host its grand opening, gathering restrictions have been loosened so two families can go to the movies or bowl together; the capacity cutoff at stadiums with more than 10,000 seats is doubled from 250 to 500; and personal-care services where a mask must be removed, such as facials, are authorized. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.