Opinion: Extension of dine-in ban would be nail in the coffin for many local restaurants
Prior to the holidays, Gov. Whitmer hinted she may consider reopening dine-in service at Michigan restaurants and bars prior to Jan. 15, when her administration’s latest emergency health order is currently set to expire. Unfortunately, it’s been radio silence since then.
This elongated “pause” that started in November is turning into the slow and painful demise for many family-owned businesses. I’m deeply worried that if she extends again, it will be the nail in the coffin for hardworking people who earn their livings waiting tables, serving drinks and preparing delicious food.
I have heard from so many restaurant owners who feel victimized and discriminated against by the arbitrary shutdown, which the state has no real data to support. These restaurants were following the MIOSHA guidelines put in place to protect the public and their workers, and yet have been forced to close their dining rooms anyway. Most cannot survive on delivery and pick up orders.
The people who make their living in the food and beverage industry were left feeling hopeless this holiday season, while other stores were packed. I don’t blame them for being frustrated; I am too. Especially since the governor just announced that the state is once again hiring. Bureaucracy can expand while private sector jobs remain restricted.
Despite our best efforts, the Legislature seems to have no method to override the emergency health orders issued by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Last month, my colleagues in the Legislature and I approved a bill that would have limited public health orders to 28 days, and then require the approval of the Legislature if they are to be extended. The measure would have aligned the way our health directives are implemented with what the Supreme Court declared for our state of emergency laws, forcing the governor to work with the legislators who serve as the voice of people in our communities. Naturally, that was vetoed.
The Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association filed suit against the targeted closures. I thought it had merit, but the judicial system disagreed and upheld DHHS’s authority.
To add insult to injury, the governor recently vetoed funding that would have continued holding local businesses harmless for unemployment tax increases caused by pandemic layoffs that are no fault of their own. The veto left many of us scratching our heads, as the measure received overwhelming bipartisan support in the Legislature.
While I know it’s just a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of money most local restaurants have lost as a result of the forced closures, some help is on the way with the state’s latest budget supplemental. It includes support for businesses and workers who have been negatively impacted by the most recent pandemic orders:
Small Business Survival Grant ($55 million): The Small Business Relief program will be distributed in the same manner as the small business restart grants that were disbursed in March 2020. Businesses that had their operations reduced as a result of the gathering and facemask orders would be eligible to receive a grant from the fund. Businesses with under 100 employees would be eligible to receive a grant of up to $20,000 for property, payroll or reopening expenses.
Employee Assistance Fund ($45 million): For individuals who work for -- or were previously employed by -- an employer that had its business operations shuttered. Impacted individuals would be eligible to apply for a grant of up to $1,650 to replace lost wages.
As for property tax deferrals, the Legislature has twice sent bills to the governor that would have provided avenues for relief. She has vetoed both efforts, even though they were separated by months of attempted negotiations aimed at finding a solution.
In the coming days, my family and I will do our best to support local restaurants the same way many in our community have been: By ordering take out and tipping well. In my role as a legislator, I will continue working hard in defense of the many small and family-owned job providers fighting to keep their heads above water, and in turn support the direct employees – as well as vendors – who rely on them to earn a living.
State Rep. Julie Calley, of Portland, represents Barry County and a portion of Ionia County in the Michigan House.