Restaurants take safety precautions to reopen Monday - but some are choosing to wait
It’s a hot day to be laying brick, but Patrick Echlin is working on the patio at 734 Brewing Company in Ypsilanti. He and his co-owners celebrated the brewery’s second anniversary just last week, amidst very different circumstances than when they opened.
Since the COVID pandemic struck, they’ve had to lay off 5 of their 8 employees, quickly get a delivery van and figure out how to bring growlers, apple wine, coffee and apparel to online customers, and make the difficult decision to hold off on reopening to dine-in customers until July 1st.
That’s despite the roll back of Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s stay at home order, which allows bars and restaurants to reopen at reduced capacity on Monday, for the first time since March 16th. Echlin says the employees he’s talked to are eager to fully reopen the brewery, even though they’re getting expanded unemployment benefits from the COVID relief funds.
“They're pretty antsy to get back to work, actually,” he says. “They're largely bored at home. And we expect to use the [state’s] work share program to bring people back. So we can have reduced hours, but they can keep getting some of that extra pandemic assistance. So we don't have to compete with unemployment on that front. But yeah, largely I think everybody is excited to get back. But, you know, they want to be safe.”
There have also been supply shortages since March, when they couldn’t get hops or yeast for almost a month. “So we’ve been on the edge of running out of beer, and sometimes out of beer, since then...but we do have some on tap now. So that’s one factor, is just replenishing and getting ready. Also we’re going to roll out our distilled spirits line...but really, it comes down to safety.”
Especially safety for his staff, Echlin says, it’s not worth being “part of the experimental phase.”
“We want to see that the case level is continuing to be low,” he says. “In Washtenaw County, we're getting like single-digit case growth every day, which is great. We want to see that that doesn't change, because like the last thing we want is to open up, and then have one of our people get sick, or somebody spreads it at our bar. That’s just unconscionable.”
They’ll also be able to learn from how other restaurants and breweries navigate reopening.
“So we'll just be watching for other people with better ideas than we have,” Echlin says. “When we do open, the bar itself will be closed because that's just too close to employees. We can't really do six feet when it's two feet away from somebody [tending bar.] The tables will be spread out, of course, but we'll just be looking for better practices than what we've come up with on our own.”
The statewide challenge: staying safe, and smiling, while reopening in a pandemic
Bars and restaurants in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and northern Lower Peninsula were the guinea pigs in this staged reopening, when they got the go-ahead to resume dine-in seating on Memorial Day weekend.
“Those restaurants were given about a three and a half day notice, in advance of what is really one of the busiest weekends of the year,” says Justin Winslow, the President and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association (MRLA.)
“Many of them had been completely dormant for two plus months. So not everyone reopened. Somewhere in the ballpark of 40 to 50% of restaurants were able to sort of flip that switch...And I'm really pleasantly surprised and impressed by how well they managed a really difficult situation.”
And those businesses had to reopen while the rest of the state and the Governor’s office watched closely.
Winslow said they had to prove “you can run your business safely for your guests, and for your employees. And do that on three-and-a-half day notice, with a whole lot of training on how to use PPE and how to socially distance your restaurant. And then make sure you're really good at it, because the rest of the state is really hoping to reopen too.”
Restaurants in the rest of the state have had a little more time to prepare, Winslow says. One of the biggest challenges: making employees feel safe about coming back to work.
"How do you bring back 350,000 people in a short period of time, train them, and...put a really good face forward and a good product out out there for the public?"
“If they don't feel safe, and they don't feel comfortable in the environment with which they work, then that's not going to work very well, and that kind of ruins the entirety of the [hospitality] industry,” he says. "So how do you bring back 350,000 people that work in the restaurant industry...a short period of time, to train them and get them ready to go in the mindset that we're not just all in this together, but that we can put a really good face forward and a good product out out there for the public?”
Every employee should be going through a full symptoms check each day at work, Winslow says. Some restaurants are doing temperature checks, though he says that’s not required.
“So they know that if there is even a hint of symptoms out there that someone might have on staff, that they're being pulled away, pulled off, everyone else is notified and testing is done quickly, so there isn't that kind of spread,” he says.
Employees should also know where they can get tested in their area, and if someone does test positive, then the restaurant should shut down and do a deep clean. And for diners who do want to return to their favorite restaurants, Winslow urges patience.
“Temper expectations and understand that your restaurant is going through an awful lot of change right now to try to make this service available to you,” he says. “And that's what they want to do. It's what they live for. This is often not a career for someone, but a passion... So just give them a little bit of forbearance as you ease back in.”