CADILLAC — Faced with the prospect of having to weather at least two additional weeks of a statewide dine-in ban, desperation is growing among beleaguered restaurant workers.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced on Wednesday the epidemic order continues to temporarily pause indoor dining in bars and restaurants, but they can continue to offer outdoor dining, carry-out and delivery.
According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, the working plan is to open indoor dining with mitigation measures, capacity limits and a curfew on Feb. 1, but the ultimate decision depends on data continuing to stabilize. Additional details on the reopening pathway are expected next week.
In the meantime, many in the food service industry are struggling to get by after their unemployment assistance ran dry several weeks ago.
Ryan Babb, 30, has been scraping the bottom of the barrel for the last month.
Babb has been working at the Pines Sports Bar and Bowling Center in Cadillac since September. Before that, he worked at other restaurants in the area and also did sub-contracting work on the side.
In the spring, when the first lockdown occurred, Babb started to collect unemployment but was able to find a job at a local restaurant and save his remaining assistance payments. When the fall dine-in pause went into effect, however, Babb again applied for assistance and by mid-December, he had run out of unemployment payments. He still works at the Pines but due to the decline in customers, he has part-time hours.
Even though the Pines has an outdoor dining area, Babb said there are some days when he doesn't have any tables to serve, as the majority of meals are now to-go orders.
Babb relies heavily on tips, and without customers to serve, his paychecks have taken a massive hit.
"I've been falling behind," Babb said. "It's not really getting me by. I just got the stimulus but that's not going to do anything for my bills."
With Babb only making a fraction of what he normally brings home, he's had to focus his meager resources on bills that absolutely need to be paid, such as the mortgage and utilities, while other bills fall by the wayside.
"It's starting to wear everybody down," Babb said. "In a time like this, what can you do? How long is this going to continue."
Fellow Pines employee Hannah Sanscrainte, 23, chose a bad time to start working full time in the food service industry: weeks after she quit her other job at a local bank, the pandemic arrived in the states and restaurants closed down for months. Since she quit her bank job right before the pandemic, getting unemployment assistance was a huge hassle and took weeks.
"I had no income whatsoever," Sanscrainte said.
During that period, Sanscrainte said friends, family and her roommates supported her until she finally was granted unemployment assistance.
Restaurants opened back up in the summer but it wasn't the same as pre-pandemic, since dine-in was restricted to 50%, Sanscrainte said.
While Sanscrainte said she hasn't been affected as much as Babb and other servers — her job duties include preparing to-go orders, which often bring decent tips — she said the drop in dine-in revenue has made it more difficult for her to pay bills.
"I had to cash out my IRA," Sanscrainte. "I was worried about not being able to make my car payment."
For Blue Heron server Barb Waite, on the other hand, the dine-in pause and has had a devastating impact on her finances.
"By the time this is over, I'll have zero savings," Waite said. "I'm scared for the first time in my life."
Waite, 50, said her unemployment assistance ran out weeks ago. Theoretically, Waite said she should be getting additional unemployment assistance and an extra $300 through a COVID-19 aid package passed recently but when she calls a number inquiring about this money, a message on the other end indicates it is not yet available.
"I've never had to worry about (staying afloat) before, then they take my job away from me," Waite said. "I just want to be able to go back to work a job I've been at for the last decade. I'd love to talk to the governor right now and tell her about what we're going through."
Pines owner Mike Blackmer said while the governor's announced reopening date of Feb. 1 does provide some light at the end of the tunnel, he questions the notion that the extra two weeks will give restaurants, bars and the state an opportunity to get their ducks in a row.
"I don't know how she thinks she's doing us any favors," Blackmer said. "What does she think we've been doing the whole time (the dine-in pause has been in effect)? We've had plenty of time to get ready for this. (The dine-in ban) is hurting us and we're going to keep losing income."
Hermann's European Cafe and Restaurant owner Hermann Suhs was even more blunt in his criticism, calling the dine-in pause extension "absolutely ludicrous."
"I did not immigrate to this country to be dependent on the government," Suhs said. "This is not the solution."
Suhs added that it's hypocritical for the government to prevent restaurants from doing business while at the same time requiring them to get all the same licenses and pay all the same taxes as before.
As a result of the decline in revenue from the dine-in ban, Suhs said he had to lay off 24 employees right before Christmas.
"Who wants to do that?" Suhs said. "I understand restrictions (like mask wearing and social distancing) but this isn't right for employees or owners. It hurts employees to the utmost."
While the dine-in ban was extended, other aspects of the epidemic order were relaxed on Wednesday, including the resumption of indoor group exercise and non-contact sports. The new order is effective Saturday, Jan. 16 and will last until Sunday, Jan. 31.
“The efforts we have made together to protect our families, frontline workers and small business owners are working," said Gov. Whitmer. "While there has been a slight uptick in our percent positivity rate, our cases per million have plateaued and more hospital beds are becoming available. Today, we are confident that MDHHS can lift some of the protocols that were previously in place. “Michigan is once again standing out as a nationwide leader in fighting this virus, and we must continue working to keep it that way."
“We continue to make progress in our fight against this virus, and expanding vaccination to health care workers, long-term care residents and staff, some essential frontline workers and those age 65 and older is bringing us closer to ending the pandemic,‘ said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive and chief deputy for health at MDHHS. “It is important that everyone continues to do their part by avoiding gatherings, wearing masks properly and social distancing. This remains just as important, even as the safe and effective vaccine is being administered, to protect those who are not yet able to be vaccinated.‘
Previously, MDHHS had identified stabilization or declines in three metrics as critical for relaxing protocols. Although Michigan saw improvements across all three following the “pause‘ implemented in mid-November, some numbers have plateaued or begun to increase in recent days:
• Hospital capacity dedicated to COVID-19 patients has been in 13-day decline, with current capacity at 12% for beds with COVID-19 patients. Peaked at 19.6% on Tuesday, Dec. 4.
• Overall case rates: increasing, currently at 266 cases per million. Peaked at 740 cases per million on Saturday, Nov. 14 and declined to a low of 239 on Friday, Dec. 25
• Positivity rate: plateauing; currently at 9.1% after reaching a low of 8.1% on Monday, Dec. 28 and increasing up to 10% since then.
“We are reopening cautiously because caution is working to save lives," said MDHHS Director Robert Gordon. "The new order allows group exercise and non-contact sports, always with masks and social distancing, because in the winter it’s not as easy to get out and exercise and physical activity is important for physical and mental health. We are glad that we made it through the holidays without a big increase in numbers, but there are also worrying signs in the new numbers. We need to remain focused and continue to see declines in hospitalizations and to bring case rates and percent positivity down by doing what we know works.‘
Indoor residential gatherings remain limited to 10 people and two households. MDHHS continues to urge families to avoid indoor gatherings or to pick a single other household to interact with consistent with guidance already released by the department. Families are encouraged to stay home as much as possible to maintain momentum and to protect loved ones.
Colleges and universities can have students return to campus for the winter semester and restart in-person courses as of Jan. 18.
As before, employees who work in jobs that cannot be performed from home can continue to go to work, while employees who can work from home should continue to do so. Individualized activities with distancing and face masks are still allowed: retail shopping; public transit; restaurant takeout; and personal-care services such as haircuts, by appointment.