LANSING – Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday ordered bars in south and central Michigan to halt indoor service, saying the step was needed to control an increase in the spread of the coronavirus.
The change was to take effect at 11 p.m. Wednesday and applies to licensed establishments that earn more than 70% of their gross receipts from alcohol sales.
That means most restaurants that serve alcohol can still do so indoors, provided the patrons are seated at tables that are socially distanced, at least 6 feet apart, according to the order.
Only in the northern Lower Peninsula and the Upper Peninsula can indoor service continue in bars, under the governor's order.
The governor also signed a package of bills allowing cocktails-to-go at bars and restaurants, which she said would help these businesses serve more Michiganders during this time.
“We owe it to our front-line heroes who have sacrificed so much during this crisis to do everything we can to slow the spread of COVID-19 and reduce the chance of a resurgence like we are seeing in other states,” Whitmer said.
The move follows an outbreak in which more than 100 cases of COVID-19 have been linked to Harper's bar in East Lansing, popular with MSU students.
“Following recent outbreaks tied to bars, I am taking this action today to slow the spread of the virus and keep people safe," Whitmer said. "If we want to be in a strong position to reopen schools for in-person classroom instruction this fall, then we need to take aggressive action right now to ensure we don’t wipe out all the progress we have made.”
Most brewpubs, distilleries and vineyards can stay open indoors, Whitmer said in a news release. Traditional bars, nightclubs, and strip clubs will have to end indoor service, she said.
"Bars will not have to close down completely, but may still offer outdoor seating and use creative methods such as cocktails-to-go in hopes that we can bring our numbers down,” Whitmer said.
Bars can be problems for spreading coronavirus because they are often crowded and poorly ventilated, Whitmer said. They encourage mingling and facilitate close contact over extended time periods, she said. They are noisy, requiring raised voices and "allowing for more projection of viral droplets," Whitmer said. And they serve alcohol, which she said reduces inhibitions and decreases compliance with mask use and physical distancing rules.
“I am hopeful providing options for cocktails-to-go and expanded social districts will ensure these businesses can remain open and Michiganders can safely and responsibly enjoy their summer outdoors.”
Kevin Peterson, owner and "cocktail scientist" at Castalia, a cocktail bar in Detroit's Midtown area, said the order will apply to his business, and, "I think it's the right move to keep the state safe."
Peterson said he has expanded his patio and is looking at whether he can expand his outdoor area further.
"We don't want to see a resurgence," and "we've got to be nimble," Peterson said.
He said he has been concerned when biking around Detroit to see that not all establishments appear to be complying with state regulations aimed at controlling the coronavirus.
Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association, said he views Wednesday's order as "largely a stay of execution for the restaurant industry, given the more expansive measures taken in several other states," following surges in cases in many states far beyond those seen in Michigan.
"This order is just the latest reminder that if we want to retain the things we love — like a great meal with friends and family — we all must bear greater responsibility for our collective safety or grieve its absence," Winslow said in a news release.
In Ann Arbor, The Blind Pig music venue will close, but the 8 Ball Saloon beneath it will keep an outdoor area — soon to be expanded — open for drinks and deejay service, said Joe Malcoun, one of the managing partners.
The decision to close The Blind Pig and review the coronavirus situation weekly was made before the order came down, Malcoun said. Recent shows had not been well attended, but, "if we became the next Harper's, it would be devastating," he said.
The current owners have other sources of income and took over the venues as "a passion project" in 2017, when the bars faced the prospect of being converted to condominiums, he said.
"I think it's the right move," he said of Whitmer's Wednesday order.
At the Red Dock Cafe near Saugatuck, owner Tony Amato said the latest order comes at a very challenging time for many businesses that have stocked large alcohol inventories they expect to sell over the July 4 weekend.
The order will not apply to the Red Dock, which sells about as much food as alcohol and serves all customers outdoors, but has had to reduce its capacity to 50% under earlier orders, Amato said.
Amato said his business insists that customers wear a mask until they are seated and again when they get up to go to the restroom and has initiated strict cleaning schedules and other protocols.
He said he has been disappointed to see many people politicize the issue of wearing a mask, which he said has been unlike the experience in Europe and much of the world.
Everyone needs to be "pulling the cart the same way" to get through the pandemic, he said.
The "cocktails to go" legislation allows Michigan residents to get certain alcoholic drinks with their takeout or delivery orders from restaurants. The social district legislation, which Whitmer also signed Wednesday, allows local governments to establish areas where drinks purchased in certain containers from bars or restaurants within that area can be carried and consumed on the street, within the bounds of that district.
Whitmer said earlier she hoped to move south and central Michigan to Phase 5 of her six-phase reopening plan, where it would join northern Michigan, ahead of the July 4 holiday. But she said Tuesday that won't happen, citing a recent uptick in Michigan cases amid a surge in cases nationally.
Under Phase 5, gyms, movie theaters and various entertainment venues are among the additional businesses that can legally reopen.
The seven-day average of daily new cases in Michigan rose to 320 Tuesday, after bottoming out June 15 at 152.
Arizona closed bars, gyms, movie theaters, and other facilities after opening most of the state in May. New Jersey announced indoor dining would not resume this week, as planned earlier.
Whitmer recently extended Michigan's state of emergency — which gives her the power to order various businesses closed or subject to restrictions — through July 16.
The state of emergency order should not be confused with the stay-at-home order, which Whitmer lifted June 1.
Michigan's barbershops, hair and nail salons, tattoo parlors and other personal service shops reopened June 15 in southern and central Michigan, after reopening June 10 in the Upper Peninsula and northern Lower Peninsula.
Also open Up North, as of June 10: movie theaters, gyms, bowling alleys and outdoor sporting venues.
On June 1, Whitmer said all Michigan bars and restaurants could reopen at 50% capacity June 8. She had earlier loosened restrictions on bars and restaurants in northern Michigan.
Construction resumed May 7 and manufacturing May 11.
Republican lawmakers have pushed to reopen the economy more quickly, especially in areas of the state with relatively few cases, and have criticized Whitmer over the inability of the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency to manage a deluge of claims.