Michigan allows restaurants to reopen for indoor dining, but top health director warns it's safer not to

Jan 22, 2021 at 11:43 am
click to enlarge Dr. Joneigh Khaldun and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. - State of Michigan
State of Michigan
Dr. Joneigh Khaldun and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Michigan is moving forward with its plan to allow restaurants to reopen for indoor dining in February, but the state's top medical official cautioned that doing so comes with a risk to diners.

"Top scientists and doctors from across the country have reiterated that being indoors with no mask on is one of the riskier activities people can do when it comes to the spread of COVID-19," Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the chief medical executive and chief deputy for health at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), said at a press conference on Friday.

"The safest thing to do is to not eat inside a restaurant," she added.

Under the plan, restaurants can reopen for indoor dining on Feb. 1 with restrictions including a limit of 25% capacity or 100 people, whichever is smaller, as well as a 10 p.m. curfew. Only six people can be seated to a table, which must be at least six feet from others, and guests can't interact with people outside of their table.

Restaurants are also required to collect contact information from customers in case they need to do contact tracing in the event a COVID-19 case is linked to the restaurant. And if an employee gets COVID-19 or shows symptoms, the restaurant has to shut down for cleaning.

Casinos, movie theaters, and stadiums can also offer concessions.

Whitmer said the decision was made due to the stabilized coronavirus numbers in the state, as well as the economic toll the pandemic has taken on the restaurant and hospitality industry.

"I know this pandemic has hurt our restaurant owners, restaurant workers, and all of their families," Whitmer said. "I want to thank those that made incredible sacrifices and did their part on behalf of our protecting our communities from COVID. I have spoken with a number of restaurant owners over the course of these months, and I know that it has not been easy. I want you to know that I will continue to do everything in my power to support you and your families."

Whitmer said she signed bipartisan legislation to offer relief to restaurants and small businesses, including allowing restaurants to postpone taxes due in December and January. The state has also announced a $10 million plan to reimburse qualifying restaurants to update their ventilation systems, which can also prevent the spread of the virus.

And if people don't feel comfortable dining indoors, "I urge Michiganders across the state to do what you can to support your favorite local restaurants," Whitmer added. "Buy a gift card for a friend or family member. Get take out a couple of times a week, if you can. Let's all do our part."

The state ordered restaurants to close for indoor dining in November as coronavirus cases surged. But since the closure, the state's numbers have stabilized: hospital capacity dedicated to COVID-19 patients has been declining for seven weeks, case rates are down to 225 cases per million after peaking at 740 cases per million on Nov. 14, and the positivity rate is now at 6.8% and declining.

Nightclubs are still prohibited, as well as indoor contact sports and other activities that require close contact.

The new order goes into effect until Sunday, Feb. 21, at which time the state will reassess. In the meantime, people are asked to continue to avoid going out when possible and to only interact without masks with one other household, with indoor residential gatherings limited to 10 people.

While the numbers are promising, Khaldun said with the highly contagious U.K. mutation of the virus being detected in three women connected to the University of Michigan, it's important for Michiganders to remain vigilant.

"We know what to do, and we can do this," Whitmer said. "Wear your mask, practice, social distancing, wash your hands, avoid indoor gatherings, where the virus can spread. That's how we end this pandemic together."

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