On Thursday, Josh Cook got the call every licensed beverage alcohol producer dreads.
An inspector from the Michigan Liquor Control Commission (MLCC) said he and his boss planned the next day to stop by Cook’s company, Kalamazoo-based Green Door Distilling Co. LLC. The meeting was part of an inspection of several distilleries in Southwest Michigan that had launched production of hand sanitizer in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cook was unavailable that day and asked if the 30-40 minute inspection could be moved to the following week, when he would be “more than willing to accommodate” the visit.
“We absolutely do have to come out there,” the inspector said in a voicemail to Cook that was provided to MiBiz. “No one’s in trouble. It’s just something we’ve got to do.”
In a phone interview on Friday, Cook said he immediately worried about the safety of his staff, and the unfortunate timing.
“It’s unfortunate because they are code officials, they are government bodies that have a lot of say in our licensure and whether we get fined,” Cook said, noting his company has never incurred a violation since it opened. “There’s always points of concern when you have to scramble your team and say, ‘OK, the inspectors are showing up tomorrow.’ But this is a time when we’re already incredibly stressed, when people are worried about the future of our business and whether they’re going to have jobs or not.
“To throw this (inspection) on top of it — like we may be doing something wrong — is just frustrating. It was unnecessary, in my opinion, and puts added stress and strain on everybody in a time when it’s the most dramatic and shaking event in any of our lives.”
Other sources reached out to MiBiz Thursday afternoon with similar concerns about the timing of the inspections during the pandemic. The inspector allegedly told one distillery owner who was at home taking care of his children on the day of the inspection that he should take them to his mother-in-law’s house or drop them off with a friend — clearly counter to the directives in the state’s stay-at-home order.
Another source called the request “immoral” given the gravity of the public health crisis, which has claimed the lives of more than 3,000 Michigan residents as of this writing.
Cook worried that the inspector’s series of meetings “certainly (provided) an opportunity to introduce contaminants if someone who’s asymptomatic comes into our production facility.”
Beyond that, Cook was concerned that “one pen stroke” could undo all of Green Door’s investment in sanitizer packaging and labeling and the crucial supplies it was providing to health systems and companies across the region.
Any disruption could also affect the livelihood of his employees. Launching hand-sanitizer production allowed the company to keep about 80 percent of its employees working during the shutdown, including some front of house employees who are now working “on a more substantial hourly base salary” to help the cause.
“It’s probably the most fulfilling project we’ve worked on to date,” Cook said, noting the company regularly shares with employees the stories and photos from people who’ve purchased the sanitizer. “It’s awesome. It brings a tear to our eyes, honestly.”
After working through the Michigan Craft Distillers Association to try to get some answers about the inspection, Cook got word Thursday evening that the inspection had been called off. The inspector left another voicemail the next morning saying “apparently a lot changed within my agency” and he was “under a directive not to do inspections right now because of COVID-19 and concerns that it might spread the virus.”
When MiBiz reached a spokesperson for the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, of which the MLCC is a part, he called it a miscommunication on the part of the inspector and did not answer other questions surrounding the incident and agency policy.
“All residents of Michigan are adjusting to our new normal, including the staff of the Michigan Liquor Control Commission,” LARA Communications Manager David Harns said via text message. “Miscommunications are inevitable during these times but the public should be aware that we are doing our best to keep Michigan safe during this unprecedented time.”
The MLCC appears to have realized that while it can conduct inspections whenever it wants, it also needs to consider the big-picture circumstances of whether it should take those actions.
Similar assessments have been playing out across the country in the wake of the pandemic, perhaps most notably in the recent dustup over Paycheck Protection Program loans going to various large corporations.
Grand Rapids-based Meritage Hospitality Group Inc. (OTCQX: MHGU), which generates nearly a half-billion in revenue and employs 11,000 people at 337 restaurants in 16 states, said in a statement this month that it was “assessing and participating in relief programs offered by the stimulus CARES Act,” including a $29.1 million PPP loan. It could access the funds, and it did.
On the other hand, Shake Shack also qualified for a PPP loan through various loopholes included in the CARES Act legislation, but decided the $10 million should go to help its intended recipients — true small businesses. So they gave it back.
Shake Shack could get the loan, but decided it should not go that route.
Likewise, Green Door Distilling could have mothballed its facility, laid off all employees and opted to ride out the shutdown. But Cook and company decided the right move — what they should do — was to make sanitizer to help fill a crucial need for the products in Southwest Michigan. Indeed, craft distillers all over Michigan have answered a similar call, earning praise from everyone from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to hospital administrators.
MLCC ultimately made the right decision in calling off the series of inspections in Southwest Michigan before they had a chance to accidentally spread an infection and inadvertently threaten the distillers’ ability to produce critical supplies.
Although they can inspect the producers whenever they want, they should allow them to help keep the public safe and disinfected.
Sanity when it comes to sanitizer prevailed.