A coalition of bars and restaurants started in Grand Rapids is “trying to build some solidarity” within the industry around managing facilities responsibly during the pandemic, following recent COVID-19 spikes linked to bars that led Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to close many of them for indoor service.
MI Restaurant Promise launched today after initial conversations between the owners of Brewery Vivant, The Mitten Brewing Co. and Long Road Distillery. The group now includes more than 70 restaurants across the state, including in Traverse City and Detroit.
“There needs to be some separation between good actors and bad actors,” Chris Andrus, co-owner of Mitten Brewing Co., told MiBiz. “We didn’t want to be lumped in with people who aren’t doing it right.”
In Grand Rapids, the Kent County Health Department recently ordered a downtown bar to close after video surfaced of large crowds last weekend. Multiple local bar owners have cited the case involving Social House Tavern as a driving force behind the coalition, as well as the more than 100 cases linked to Harper’s Restaurant and Brew Pub in East Lansing.
The MI Restaurant Promise website says, in part, “As restaurant owners and managers, we feel a sense of responsibility for the health and well-being of our employees, our guests, and the community at large.”
The effort has been endorsed by several area business and trade associations, including the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses, the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Kent County Hospitality Association.
The group also says it’s committed to following state and federal guidelines, including daily wellness checks for staff, mask-wearing and being open about when positive COVID-19 cases surface. In return, they ask patrons — among other requests — to wear masks upon entering or order takeout if they’re unwilling to do so.
“We view them not as infringements on our rights, but rather precautions we can all take to allow for our industry to re-open safely for our staff and our guests. In return, we ask for your commitment to carefully follow the guidelines posted in our establishments and communicated to you by our team members,” the group says.
Though Mitten’s Grand Rapids location sells enough food to be exempt from Whitmer’s July 1 order, which doesn’t apply to its Northport location, Andrus said a “shutdown for us can’t be far if we don’t take immediate action.”
He added that Whitmer’s order “was the right call, absolutely.”
More targeted action
The Michigan Licensed Beverage Association, however, was quick to criticize Whitmer’s order, saying it unnecessarily penalizes bars and restaurants that have followed safety guidelines and “aren’t the bad actors.”
MLBA Executive Director Scott Ellis told MiBiz: “This is the patron’s fault, this isn’t the bar or restaurant owner’s fault, this is the people who don’t wear a mask and go out. And you look at the age group, it’s a young age group that’s had this spike. Now a business owner is going to get devastated because of other people’s choices, that’s what hurts us the most.”
While Andrus said Whitmer’s order was a “good move” and “seemed more surgically pointed than other actions she’s taken,” he hoped to see similar actions that were taken in Kent County where the local health department ordered a bar to close.
Tami VandenBerg, the owner of Grand Rapids bars The Meanwhile and Pyramid Scheme who has signed on to the MI Restaurant Promise, said she is “disappointed (the state) didn’t take a little more time to work on enforcement and to focus on the bad actors.”
While the order was disappointing, it was also unsurprising to VandenBerg. She recently opened The Meanwhile after waiting a few weeks when bars were first allowed to reopen on June 8. She hasn’t decided yet whether to reopen just the bar’s patio.
“Once that Social House video dropped, it was like a whole new level,” she said, anticipating some form of tightened restrictions to follow.
VandenBerg described the early members of MI Restaurant Promise as “like-minded business owners who have historically been very community minded.”
“We were really excited to finally open, then it became clear super quickly there were a lot of people in the community that were not going to enforce guidelines and take things seriously,” she said. “We know that was unfortunately going to reflect on us.”
MiBiz Reporter Kate Carlson contributed to this story.
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