Marcela Rubio-Orozco and Andrew Epstein are married co-owners of Dolores, a restaurant and bar that served homemade Mexican food in Ypsilanti. They made the difficult decision to close the business earlier this year amid the first COVID-19 surge and the public health restrictions that accompanied it.
Navigating those first few months of uncertainty, Epstein says, was “brutal.” Dolores hadn’t been open for very long when the first COVID-19 cases hit Michigan, he says. They had just celebrated two years of the business in February, then had to close after March 13.
At first, it wasn’t permanent.
“It became very clear that, for the safety of our guests and our staff, we needed to temporarily close, which we did,” Epstein said. “Once the restrictions came into place with the limited capacity, it unfortunately just made it not possible for us to reopen. Because selling tacos, we really needed to be kind of busy all the time in order to make our business model work.”
Rubio-Orozco says that even with the city’s efforts to close sidewalks and expand outdoor seating options, it wasn’t enough to keep the business going, particularly with cold weather coming and so many uncertainties affecting decision-making.
“It’s really hard to start a business or do work on a business like this when you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Rubio-Orozco said. “Like are you going to get shut down again, are you not? So I think that was one of the reasons that we decided to not do any of the takeout options that were available to us.”
Epstein says they still feel good about their decision to shut Dolores, even though it was a gut-wrenching choice to make.
“For us, it really was always about just safety. And we didn’t feel comfortable with the people that are required to make it work, in terms of the purveyors, the deliveries, the people that have to cook in the kitchen, which a lot of times isn’t always six feet apart,” he said.
In an attempt to address the recent COVID-19 spike in the state, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has issued a new order, which prohibits indoor dining in Michigan restaurants and bars. It went into effect November 18 and will remain in place for three weeks. But the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association (MRLA) has filed a lawsuit against the department’s director Robert Gordon requesting a judge to block the order’s implementation.
MRLA President and CEO Justin Winslow says this lawsuit was one of the last available options to the industry, which he says has been singled out repeatedly in the state’s attempts to contain the spread of COVID-19.
“People in this industry are tired. It’s been a hard year,” he said. “This represents the last chance to keep operating their business, because we know that 40% of our operators are going to close while there is a closure of dining in place, and I don't know how many of them are going to choose to reopen or be able to reopen on the other side.”
Rubio-Orozco says she sees the recent restrictions on in-person dining from both a citizen’s and a business owner’s perspective. On the one hand, she says she hopes Governor Gretchen Whitmer is following medical experts’ recommendations. But she adds that she can’t deny that business owners are being affected by the restrictions.
Additional support for businesses that do need to shut down right now could help, Rubio-Orozco says.
“We would like to see some assistance with us getting through this, so that we can come out on the other side and be successful business owners and contributing to the economy, like we’d like to,” she said.
What could that “other side” look like? For now, Epstein says the couple is hoping to reopen Dolores in a new format this December.
“Not a restaurant, but more of a store,” he said. “We’re going to be selling wine, beer, liquor, cocktails to go, as well as packaged meals that you can make at home and have your own fun Dolores night at home.”
But he says he doesn’t see them returning to a dine-in business model anytime soon.
“I think it all goes back to the uncertainty,” Epstein said. “I would love in a shorter term to be able to reopen the bar at the very least on a weekend, maybe do just like a smaller capacity so people feel safe and comfortable. … But in terms of a sit-down restaurant, I’ve got to be honest that I am somewhat pessimistic about when that day will come.”
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.