Fearing more losses, Michigan restaurants pause as COVID hits staff

“And it’s not their fault,” he said. “There is nothing they did wrong.”

The highly contagious variant quickly took hold in southeast Michigan days before Christmas, before spreading across the state as people gathered socially over the holidays.

Now, restaurants across the state are entering a slow season for many, struggling to anticipate what the pandemic will mean for them over the next month, for much less time. After 22 months which included mandatory closures and capacity restrictions, staff shortages and increasing costs which added, for example, 25 percent of the cost of the beef, the uncertainty is troubling.

The spread of Omicron “is real and everywhere,” said Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association.

The solutions are difficult, he added, and every restaurateur navigates them alone.

“Are they going to sit still during the week while they put their staff in good health?” Will they stay away from the month while they know it rises in Michigan? Said Winslow. “Or are they going to stay indefinitely because the challenges of running a restaurant right now are too great?” “

Waves of restaurants, many in the southern part of the state, appear to be announcing temporary closures as they balance sales targets with potential staff shortages from the virus. Selden Standard in Detroit, Hamburger Mary’s in Grand Rapids, Paesano Restaurant and Wine Bar in Ann Arbor, and Stober’s Bar in Lansing have all announced temporary closings on social media.

AT Grow coffee and the tap house in Ypsilanti, owners Matt and Sara Demorest announced on Christmas Eve that it would be closing until January 3, missing its biggest selling week of the year.

“This new variant is so different in terms of its spread that we haven’t seen a way forward without isolating our team from each other and waiting for it,” Sara Demorest told Bridge.

The staff were not paid, a sacrifice Demorest said the workers were all prepared to make. And among the costs were perishable goods that could not be donated, which still weighs on the owners.

“We are not in a position to waste like this and survive,” said Demorest.

Changes to the guidelines regarding both exposure to the virus and positive tests are adding to some confusion regarding staffing levels. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reduced the number of days in isolation for people who test positive from 10 to five. People exposed but without symptoms can, according to the guidelines, still work. But the availability of tests has been limited.

“There is so much confusion over what is the ‘right’ thing to do,” Demorest said. “The new CDC rules… don’t match what we expect from security.”

Customer reaction to omicron so far has varied considerably, Winslow said. Demand in many regions remained high at the end of the year after falling due to the delta variant in the fall.

“There is still a part of the population which I think is a distinct minority at this point that is hyper cautious and minimizes public exposure,” he said. But others, he said, seem to want to “move on” from the virus and are coming out.

In northern Michigan, heavy snowfall this week is prompting more tourists to come skiing and snowmobiling. Gary Kosch, owner of the CRAVE pub in Gaylord and other restaurants there and in Kalkaska, said his properties had a record week at the end of 2019.

“I haven’t noticed a drop in sales because of COVID,” Kosch said.

However, the virus has reached the staff. One of Kosch’s restaurants closed last week when two managers tested positive, but Kosch said no one else had, so it reopened within two days. So far, he said, widespread staff illnesses have not affected his operations.

He can’t predict what might happen next.

“Any plan you put in place is changed,” Kosch said. “Right now we’re just trying to get through the winter.”

This is also the goal of Berg, of Essence Restaurant Group in Grand Rapids.

Berg recently announced plans to close restaurants for two weeks each year in an effort to create what he calls a “more attractive work culture” for an industry that is losing workers to other, less stressful types of work.

As a result, Bistro Bella Vita in downtown Grand Rapids and Green Well in the city’s East Hills neighborhood closed for the first week of January and will close again for the first week of July.

By then, Berg hopes Grove, the group’s fine-dining restaurant, will reopen. It has been closed due to the pandemic and plans to reopen have been delayed from fall 2021 to spring, due to omicron.